Heart Mark

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A sore throat can break a little heart

More than 80% of heart disease are caused by unhealthy lifestyle choices such as smoking, very little physical activity and poor food choices. Sadly, poor living conditions and poverty can also lead to heart disease. Poor living conditions is associated with Rheumatic Heart Disease (RHD). By learning more about this condition, you and other South Africans can help to beat this preventable heart disease. Read on and join the fight against Rheumatic Heart disease!

It all starts with a common throat infection

All children and adults are prone to occasional infections. Usually the human body starts an immune reaction to fight the bacteria or virus. People that live in overcrowded areas such as informant settlements and people whose immune system don’t work well due to other poor health or poor nutrition are more likely to catch infections. Infections are also easily transmitted if people don’t practice good hygiene, and at places where children gather like schools and creches.

One such infection is called strep throat, an infection caused by bacteria called streptococcus. Once someone is infected with this germ it causes throat pain or pain on swallowing, fever and general illness with headache, nausea, vomiting or weakness. Inside the throat the tonsils may be red, swollen or have white pus on them. Strep throat does not cause the normal symptoms of a cold like a runny or blocked nose and phlegm.

Two weeks after a throat infection…

In some case, more often in children between the ages of 5 and 15, the human body can overreact to this throat infection, and cause an abnormal immune response a few weeks later. This immune response is called rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever can have several symptoms, including joint pain, fever above 38°C, feeling unwell and tired with shortness of breath, sometimes a skin rash, and abnormal movements. Not all these symptoms will always be present.

Rheumatic fever can start to damage the heart valves within the heart. There are four chambers in the heart and the heart valves are important to separate the blood in different chambers, and to direct the flow of blood in the right direction. If the heart valves are damaged this effect the functioning of the heart and over time this can causes heart failure and increases the risk for other conditions such as strokes.

Lasting damage to the heart

The damage caused by rheumatic fever is called rheumatic heart disease. Whilst rheumatic fever is an illness that comes and goes, rheumatic heart disease is a lifelong condition. Often people with rheumatic heart disease suffer repeated episodes of rheumatic fever that further damages the heart.

People living with rheumatic heart disease may need to be on life-long medication and should see their doctor regularly. RHD poses a big risk for women when they become pregnant and they may need to be on birth control or first discuss pregnancy with their doctor. Over time rheumatic heart disease can come so severe that patients need expensive heart surgery that is not readily available in the public health sector. Worldwide, a quarter of a million lives are lost to rheumatic heart disease every year. Rheumatic heart disease still affects many poorer communities in South Africa and causes preventable illness.

What can I do?

To beat rheumatic heart disease larger problems such as overcrowding, poor hygiene, and improved medical treatment needs to be addressed. Whilst these problems require changes beyond your control, you can get together with your community to advocate for better living conditions.

Parents, school teachers and other caregivers of young children can make a difference by simply looking out for a sore throat and by educating children about it. A sore throat in the absence of a cold or flu could possibly be a strep throat, which can cause rheumatic fever. Take a child to the doctor or clinic if a strep throat is suspected.

Sore throats matter!

Strep throat usually presents with throat pain or pain on swallowing, fever higher than 38°C and feeling unwell with headache, nausea, vomiting or weakness. Inside the throat the tonsils may be red, swollen or have white pus on them. Three actions can help to reduce strep throat infections:

  1. Seek medical advice for a sore throat
  2. A child with strep throat should stay away from school to avoid spreading the infection to other children.
  3. Teach children good hygiene to prevent the spread of germs