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Local NHS staff set off to support African Humanitarian Project

Echo in Africa team

Three cardiology specialists from the Trust are heading to Cape Town, South Africa to support a national humanitarian project screening school children for heart disease.

The 'Echo in Africa' project has been organised by the British Society of Echocardiography and aims to screen 2,000 school children over an eight week period for the early signs of heart disease.

Dr Rae Duncan, Consultant Cardiologist, Lois Albin, Cardiac Physiologist and Alex Thompson, Cardiology STR from County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust will each join the project for a week to support the screening with their expertise and experience in echocardiograph scanning.

Rheumatic Heart Disease is the most common acquired heart disease in children in many countries of the world and is known as the neglected disease of poverty, poor sanitation and overcrowding. If untreated, it leads to severe scarring on the heart valves, heart failure and premature death.

Rheumatic fever is easily treated by antibiotics if diagnosed early and in this country it is thankfully now rare. The story in Africa is very different where an estimated 1 million are affected.

Lois Albin, Cardiac Physiologist said: "As part of the British Society of Echocardiography, we will be working as part of a team to use our skills in echocardiography to screen children for Rheumatic Heart Disease and conduct research into this condition. Children who are identified to have the condition will be followed up and given treatment by Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town, which they may not otherwise have had access to. This screening programme could really be lifesaving for these kids.

"This is a great opportunity for us to use our professional skills to help people that are less fortunate than we are. We are all really looking forward to going out there and making a difference!"

There are 15.6 million people worldwide living with the consequences of rheumatic heart disease. Most of these people live in areas with severe social and economic challenges.

Rheumatic heart disease is caused by the bodies over reaction to streptococcal throat infection (severe sore throat).  This provides a disease called acute rheumatic fever.  In many cases the sufferer is unaware that they have suffered from this. Acute rheumatic fever causes inflammation of heart valves and with each throat infection the disease reactivates leading to increasingly severe scarring of the heart valves.

Over time, scarred heart valves become either leaky or narrowed and this puts immense strain on the heart leading to heart failure.

This is the third most common cause for heart failure in Africa. There are 15 million sufferers worldwide and a quarter of a million deaths each year.

The key to preventing severe heart damage is early detection. With early detection and proper treatment many of these devastating complications can be prevented. Early detection is best provided by ultrasound of the heart - echocardiography. Heart scanning with ultrasound has been demonstrated to be ten times as sensitive as the traditional method and is now recommended for screening.  

Long-term treatment with antibiotics can then prevent the throat infections that lead to reactivation of the disease.

Dr Rae Duncan, Consultant Cardiologist said: "We are in a fortunate position having the skills, expertise and technology to be able to identify and treat rheumatic heart disease in the UK. New cases of the disease in children in this country are now very rare. However, as a mother thinking about my children being at risk of something which is so easily preventable is very emotional. So to be able to give something back by supporting this project is a really great opportunity and something we are all very excited about and we are looking forward to going." 

Guy Lloyd, President British Society of Echocardiography said: "From an initial modest proposal, the initiative has grown to an eight week rolling program of screening at the University of Stellenbosch. The focus of this first camp is to screen up to two thousand secondary school students for signs of Rheumatic Heart Disease."

"In order to accommodate the volume of screening and to perform the test to a professional standard, it will be necessary to build a permanent facility.  Building the permanent facility means that Echo in Africa will be an ongoing BSE initiative, providing an exciting opportunity for BSE members to take part in a humanitarian mission whilst expanding their knowledge."

" I have been amazed at how members of the society have supported this initiative, the number prepared to give up time and raise considerable sums of money to travel to South Africa is truly humbling and a testament to the goodness of people working in this area."

For more information about the Echo in Africa project visit: http://echoinafrica.azurewebsites.net/welcome/

'I have to compliment everyone on their pleasant persona and their expertise and knowledge. By the end of the 5 days, I did not feel as though I had been in a hospital ward and was very relaxed.'

Patient, Ward 16 Orthopaedics, University Hospital of North Durham