That heart disease is a global problem that affects people of all ages is something Dr. Mark Plunkett, a pediatric heart surgeon, and the International Children’s Health Foundation (ICHF), know all too well. Congenital heart disease, also known as congenital heart defects, occur in 1 percent of the world’s population.
In the US, treatment for CHD is often readily available. That isn’t always the case in developing nations or in countries that are economically disadvantaged. In some locations, children with CHD aren’t diagnosed until their lives are in grave danger. At that point, their parents are given little guidance, other than being told to send their child to a far away country, such as the US or UK, for treatment.
ICHF was founded in 1993 and since then has provided the resources needed so that children across the world can receive the appropriate treatment for heart disease. As Dr. Mark Plunkett notes, “the organization is huge and has heart surgery missions for children in over 40 countries annually.”
The role ICHF plays is threefold. It aims to provide immediate and direct care to children suffering from heart disease. The organization also provides medical centers in developing countries with equipment, supplies and medicine. It also trains doctors in those countries, so that children are able to continue to receive the treatment they need. “Many of these countries do not offer heart surgery for children so it is literally life saving work,” Dr. Plunkett, a volunteer heart surgeon and supporter of ICHF, says.
To understand the importance of the work performed by ICHF, it’s important to understand the scope of CHD and other forms of heart disease around the world.
Heart disease that occurs in babies and children can often be divided into categories. CHD is a condition a child is born with. It occurs in about one out of every 100 babies born. According to ICH, the number of occurrences are higher in developing countries.
Acquired heart disease is a condition that develops at some point in a child’s life. In developing countries, the most commonly occurring form of acquired heart disease in young people is rheumatic heart disease. Nearly 16 million people currently have the condition, according to the World Heart Federation. Of those people, around 233,000 die every year. The condition is thought to affect about 1 percent of the school-aged children in the Eastern Mediterranean, Latin America, Africa and Asia.
The exact treatment a child with heart disease needs depends on the extent of and the type of disease he or she has. When a baby is born with a complex CHD, he or she will often need surgery soon after birth. According to ICHF, half of all children with CHD need surgery at some point. Of that number, 35 percent will need a surgical procedure within the first month of being diagnosed. Without surgery, the child is likely to die.
Typically, CHD is treated with either a catheterization or open heart surgery, or in some cases, both. A catheterization involves threading a thin tube through an artery or vein. If the procedure is performed to repair a hole in the heart, a small device on the end of the catheter is pushed into the hole in the child’s heart, plugging it up. As the child heals, the tissue of the heart grows over the device, securing it in place. The procedure is simple and is often preferable to surgery for patients who are eligible.
If catheterization isn’t the appropriate option for a child or doesn’t do enough to fix the heart issue, the next option is surgery. During surgery, a doctor might stitch up or otherwise close any holes in the heart’s walls, open up or widen heart valves and arteries, or replace valves as needed.
In some cases, a child can have a number of different defects with the heart. If doctors are unable to repair all of the issues with the heart, dependable option is a heart transplant. Donor hearts can be difficult to come by, no matter where in the world a child lives and heart transplantation is not an available option in most developing countries.
The cost of surgery for a child might seem prohibitively high, especially if the surgery involves traveling to a distant country. But, the BabyHeart Missions that ICHF runs every year to multiple countries makes the cost of surgery affordable. Since the organization is a not-for-profit, much of the supplies it receives and brings to the countries it works in are donated. Additionally, the doctors, such as Mark Plunkett, and other medical professionals who work with the organization donate their time and services to providing much-needed treatment to children.
All told, the usual cost of a BabyHeart Mission is about $40,000. ICHF often performs surgery on over 20 children during the course of a single two-week mission. That means that through the organization’s work, the lives of over 20 children can be saved, for about the same amount it would cost to perform the surgery in a developed country.
Most importantly, ICHF doesn’t simply come in and operate on a group of children. The organization also focuses on making its work sustainable, which involves training local doctors, nurses and other health care providers too. By providing help where it’s most needed and training the next generation, Dr. Mark Plunkett and all the others who volunteer with ICHF are helping to give children a better shot at life.