Dar es Salaam. It has been a hectic week at Jakaya Kikwete Cardiac Institute (JKCI) in Dar es Salaam, where a team of doctors from Israel, in collaboration with local specialists, have been carrying out life-saving surgeries on children born with heart defects.
Tanzania’s first paediatric heart surgeon, Dr Godwin Godfrey, who was trained in Israel, led the group of local experts, who teamed up with Israeli surgeons from Wolfson Medical Centre in Holon.
Until yesterday, at least 20 children had undergone life-saving surgeries. By the time The Citizen met the surgeons, it was the turn of Sharif Malapila, a two-year-old boy from Dodoma, who was born with a hole in his heart.
From the time he was one-year-old, Sharif was not able to breathe properly and doctors at some district hospitals in Dodoma thought he was suffering from pneumonia. It was not until he was referred to JKCI that specialists diagnosed him with the heart defect.
The specialists at JKCI were yesterday trying to establish the extent of his condition by subjecting him to a high-tech diagnostic procedure known as cardiac catheterisation.
According to the head of JKCI, Prof Mohammed Janabi, the doctors needed to intervene as early as possible to prevent the child’s condition from worsening.
“In delayed cases, it becomes difficult to repair some heart defects. Of all the children we have checked up so far, it has been discovered that the condition of three is beyond repair,” he told The Citizen.
Prof Janabi attributed the situation to lack of diagnostic equipment in most local public hospitals. He also noted that most parents in Tanzania lacked information on early signs of heart complications in children.
This reporter witnessed how the ailing boy was being diagnosed in the cardiac catheterisation lab before he could later undergo open heart surgery. He was surrounded by a team of 10 experts.
Dr Assa Sagi, a senior intervention paediatric cardiologist from Israel told The Citizen that it would take about four hours for the doctors to establish whether the boy was to be operated or not.
Special single-handed devices were being directed by the experts in the diagnosis room. The rest of the experts, who were stationed in a control room were monitoring through a screen on how a catheter was being inserted through the heart of Sharif to try to establish the size of the hole in his heart.
The room was highly irradiated such that the experts were forced to wear special clothing, known as lead coats, which are as heavy as 10kg, to protect themselves from radiation.
Not many children in Tanzania are as lucky as Sharif and other children, who underwent surgery. Globally, it is estimated that 8 to 10 out of every 1,000 live children are born with heart defects.
But according to Prof Janabi, most cases of children born with heart defects in Tanzania remain undiagnosed and largely unknown.
These statistics have remained constant in different parts of the world, but in Tanzania, there is no specific data on the extent of the problem. “More research is needed on such cases,” said Prof Janabi.
Latest interventional surgeries at JKCI are free of charge. “Life-saving heart surgery and catheterisation would save a patient about Sh8.4 million,” said the cardiologist and former head of presidential physicians.
Each year, there is a waiting list of over 500 children who require heart surgeries, according to Prof Janabi. There are various intervention programmes going on at JKCI to try to save the lives of children with heart defects.