Free State hospital’s vision to heal the hearts of babies in rural areas

A collaboration between the University of the Free State, the Mother and Child Academic Hospital Foundation and the Discovery Fund has led to hearts being touched across the Free-State.
A collaboration between the University of the Free State, the Mother and Child Academic Hospital Foundation and the Discovery Fund has led to hearts being touched across the Free-State.

A collaboration between the University of the Free State (UFS), the Mother and Child Academic Hospital Foundation and the Discovery Fund has led to hearts being touched across the Free-State – quite literally. With new mobile outreach units, specialists can now reach rural communities to diagnose heart defects in babies who would otherwise have had to travel extensively to reach paediatric care.

“There are many children dying in the periphery of our hospitals because everyone thinks they have respiratory problems when they actually have congenital heart disease,” says Dr. Stephen Brown, a paediatric cardiologist at the Universitas Hospital in Bloemfontein. “We know for a fact that it is 100% curable, yet we lose 40 babies per year in South Africa.”

Dr. Brown adds that there are a number of children born with heart lesions that require early referral. When doctors detect this in the neonatal unit, they can easily carry out urgent procedures in children who would have otherwise died. Unfortunately, many children in the area are misdiagnosed or only referred at an advanced disease stage due to limited access to healthcare.

To aid the early detection of heart defects, the Discovery Fund recently funded R750 000 towards the purchase of portable diagnostic equipment to increase diagnosis rates amongst paediatric patients. “With 1 out of 4 infants dying because of a birth defect from a heart anomaly or malformation, this funding will allow us to see more children to make sure that they are diagnosed early enough to get good treatment,” says Prof. André Venter, Academic Head of the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health at the UFS. The equipment funded by the Discovery Fund will be geared specifically towards early diagnosis, referrals, training and outreach in rural areas of the Free State where patients have limited access to healthcare. “With the mobile outreach unit, we can see between 15 to 25 children once in three months,” Dr. Brown explains. “We’ll start our day at 4 am and spend it in the community of Phuthaditjhaba after which we’ll visit the regional doctor in Bethlehem the next day. We’ll then see the children who are referred for a follow up in their communities so that they don’t have to travel far.”

The Department of Paediatric Cardiology at Universitas Hospital is the only dedicated referral unit for children with congenital and acquired cardiac disease in the entire central South Africa district. The mobile outreach unit will therefore allow the hospital to deliver comprehensive paediatric cardiology services to children in the Free State, Northern Cape and Lesotho. This intervention would include outreach initiatives by three dedicated paediatric cardiologists, including Dr. Brown, to identify early cardiac abnormalities in rural areas.

The collaboration between UFS and the Discovery Fund stretches back to 2006 when Discovery first started funding the neonatal unit. In 2015, the fund further granted a million rand to the UFS towards building a children’s wing, as well as towards the purchase of 10 neonatal intensive care unit beds and five neonatal high-care beds. “The Discovery Fund has made child and maternal health one of its funding focus areas and provides support to organisations and initiatives which cover a mother and child’s journey,” writes Ruth Lewin, Head of Corporate Sustainability at Discovery.

Since then, the Mother And Child Academic Hospital (MACAH) Foundation was established in 2017 to manage the child wing and the First 1000 Days campaign, which focuses on improving nutrition and the health of a mother and her child. Prof. Venter, who is the Founding Director of MACAH, says it started as a dream, then became a project and is now a reality.  MACAH, together with the UFS, is also seeking to establish a mother-and-child academic hospital where patients from the most economically deprived communities with complicated diagnoses have the opportunity to be treated by the best specialists.

This post was sponsored by Discovery and produced by BrandStudio24.

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