Big hearts can protect little hearts this Heart Month

smart-little-heart-logoOur Friends at the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA) are doing their bit during Heart Month to raise funds for upgrading of paediatric cardiac care units. They teamed up with the Paediatric Cardiac Society of South Africa (PCSSA) to shine a spotlight on congenital heart disease and the fact that many parents are unaware of their child having a heart condition.

Heart disease affects children too

“There is something wrong with your baby’s heart” – these are the words no parent wants to hear. Yet one in 100 babies are born with congenital heart disease (CHD). It is the most common birth defect worldwide and sadly, 10% of these babies do not reach their first birthday.

“The real tragedy is that many parents don’t know that their baby might have a heart defect,” says Professor Pamela Naidoo, the new CEO of the HSFSA. She says inherited heart conditions affect around 1% of the population. “It has happened that a family only realises that there is an inherited heart condition when a child or family member collapses on the rugby field or while engaged in an activity.”

Wanting to prevent such tragedies, the HSFSA is launching a new campaign this September during Heart Month – the Smart Little Hearts campaign. In a joint initiative with the PCSSA, the campaign sets out to increase awareness about CHD and arm parents with the knowledge they need to get their children screened at birth, as well as to raise funds to support children affected by the condition.

Heart disease in children can be treated

Although there is nothing that can be done to prevent congenital heart disease, there is a lot that can be done for new born babies, if it is detected early. Special care and treatment can prevent it being fatal and can reduce the impact of disability later in life.

Paediatric cardiologist and president of the PCSSA, Dr Liesl Zuhlke says, “Often congenital heart disease is missed or diagnosed too late. Some babies born with a heart defect can appear healthy at first and can be sent home with their families before their heart defect is detected. Babies with undiagnosed critical CHD are discharged and then deteriorate rapidly or die. About 20% of deaths thought to be Sudden Infant Syndrome (SIDS) are actually CHD.”

Dr Zuhlke believes every child should be tested for CHD before they leave the hospital. And a breakthrough in the detection of the condition in the form of a simple test, called pulse oximetry screening, means that this is not an idle wish – even in under-resourced South African hospitals.

Pulse oximetry screening is a simple, non-invasive test that determines the amount of oxygen in a baby’s blood and the baby’s pulse rate. Low levels of oxygen in the blood can be a sign of a CHD. The test is endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which advocates that it should be in every health facility worldwide – but it is not widely used in South Africa.

“Unfortunately, the test is not carried out routinely in this country,” says Professor Naidoo. “It’s not part of routine care and the technology is not available in all maternity units and health facilities.

“In fact, maternity units and paediatric cardiac units in hospitals around the country are poorly equipped and under resourced,” continues Naidoo. “They need more equipment and healthcare personnel to screen every new born baby. But there is also much that can be done to brighten up these areas in hospitals to make them more child-friendly.”

A room with a heart

About 11 000 babies are born each year in South Africa with congenital heart disease. The majority of these will need on-going medical care. As many of the paediatric cardiac care units in South Africa are cold, unfriendly places, the HSFSA wants to raise funds to refurbish these health facilities and improve the quality of the lives of children with heart disease.

Seven paediatric cardiac care units in the South African public healthcare system have been identified as being in urgent need of upgrades to be more child-friendly. And the HSFSA has opened an SMS donate line (SMS “SMART” to 38502 to donate R10) to help raise funds to achieve this.

“Help us turn scary hospitals into warm and loving environments for our Smart Little Hearts. Just R10 can help to put a smile on the face of a child suffering from heart disease,” says Professor Naidoo.

Hearts big and small at risk from heart disease in SA

The Smart Little Hearts campaign forms part of a bigger awareness drive that the HSFSA will be running in September for Heart Awareness Month. “Heart diseases and strokes are the second biggest killer in South Africa after HIV/AIDS,” says Professor Naidoo.

She says people in South Africa are becoming less active and eat more unhealthily resulting in obesity, diabetes and hypertension all being on the rise. These are big risk factors for heart disease. “If we continue leading these unhealthy lives, the impact of heart diseases will get worse,” warns Professor Naidoo.

The good news is that up to 80% of heart disease can be prevented by living a healthy and balanced lifestyle – getting enough exercise, eating a balanced diet, not smoking and drinking little alcohol. It is also vital that people get themselves tested to find out if they are at risk for heart disease so that they can manage their risk factors.

This September, the HSFSA is partnering with Dis-Chem Pharmacies nationwide to provide free testing for blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose, risk factors that contribute to heart disease.

By getting tested, people will help themselves – but they can also help raise funds for the HSFSA Smart Little Hearts campaign. Local healthcare organisations MNI Lifestyle and Patient Focus will make a donation towards the campaign for every person tested this Heart Month.

“This is just another way that big hearts can help protect themselves and little ones this Heart Month,” says Professor Naidoo.

Want to help?

SMS the word “Smart” to 38502 to donate R10 to improve the lives of children in paediatric cardiac care units in South Africa as part of the Smart Little Hearts campaign.

Visit for more information.