How the ICHF Is Trying To Fight Global Youth Heart Problems

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.

The Stats

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.

Treatment Needs

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.