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Heart defects pointed out early

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Prof. Stephen BrownPhoto: Supplied
Prof. Stephen BrownPhoto: Supplied

Paediatric heart specialist at the University of the Free State (UFS) Prof. Stephen Brown is leading a collaborative initiative aimed at saving the lives of children with heart defects in the Free State.

This involves the UFS, the Mother and Child Academic Hospital (Macah) Foundation and the Discovery Fund. The collaboration was announced on 1 September.

An outreach project that was started in 2016 has been improved to reach rural areas in the Free State to diagnose heart defects in babies early.

“It will help curb the death of young patients due to congenital heart disease, and make services more accessible to rural communities,” said Brown.

He is principal specialist and head of the division of paediatric cardiology in the department of paediatrics and child health in the faculty of health sciences at the UFS. He also renders service at the Universitas Academic Hospital in Bloemfontein.

“Babies in the rural areas of South Africa may die as a result of an undiagnosed heart lesion, because everyone assumes that they have respiratory problems when they actually have critical congenital heart disease – up to 85% of which is curable.”

Brown said the success of the project increased prospects to grow and expand it to other rural areas and provinces.

“We initiated an outreach programme because some patients found it difficult to get transport to our central hospital. Since the Free State is considered rural, there are long distances to travel. Our concept was that we should take the service to grassroots level to make it more con­venient for the parents and caretakers.

“We partnered with Macah, and since the early detection of congenital heart disease makes a big difference, it fits in nicely with Macah’s first 1 000 days drive.”

Prof. André Venter, chairperson of the Macah Foundation, said one of the main commitments in central South Africa related to their belief that the first 1 000 days in any child’s life determine their trajectory for life.

“We should do everything in our power to ensure that this 1 000-day journey is optimal for each child, including conception, pregnancy, birth and health during the first two years of life,” he said.

Brown said the hard work of Tertia de Bruyn attracted partners such as Discovery. He also attributed success to the expertise and dedication of Dr Daniel Buys of the UFS department of paediatrics and child health and Rudolph Pretorius, echocardiography technician.

The diagnosing of heart lesions is being conducted by a mobile echocardiography apparatus which was donated by the Discovery Foundation via Macah. The machine looks like a laptop and can be transported in a carry case.

“We see 170 to 250 patients on an annual basis. Since initiation in 2020, the Pelonomi Hospital has seen on average 40 children per month receiving a heart sonar.”

The service is confined to secondary hospitals that include the Mofumahadi Manapo Mopeli Regional Hospital in Qwaqwa, the Bongani Regional Hospital in Welkom and the Dihlabeng Regional Hospital in Bethlehem, as well as the Pelonomi Hospital in Bloemfontein.

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