Virus knocks out Rheumatic Relief mission

The 11th annual mission of Rheumatic Relief to Samoa has been cancelled because of the coronavirus (C.O.V.I.D.-19), putting the two-week screening and study mission on hold until 2021.

The project, started in Brigham Young University (B.Y.U.) in 2009, has been bringing cardiologists and medical students to Samoa every year since to help reduce the burden of rheumatic heart disease. 

Samoa has among the highest rates of rheumatic heart disease globally and rates 14 per cent higher than its regional neighbours, according to the B.Y.U. researchers.

The disease can be identified with echocardiography. Between 2008 and 2012, a massive screening programme of nearly 8,500 children revealed 14 out of every 1000 children had rheumatic heart disease, cardiologist Asiata Dr. Satupaitea Viali said in an online paper.

Another study between 2013 and 2015 of 11,434 children revealed a high prevalence of definite heart disease in 10 out of 1000 and borderline disease in eight out of 1000.

But due to travel restrictions and public health advice in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the B.Y.U. deployment will not come to Samoa this year for their previously scheduled late April trip. 

Intending to travel with them was the humanitarian arm of the project, led by a volunteer and B.Y.U. alumni, Leslie Barkdull, who for the last four years has collected children’s books, backpacks and other resources for the children being screened by the doctors and students.

Each year she has managed to bring around 15,000 books to Samoa, to distribute among the children to take home, and among some teachers for their classrooms, collected from book stories, church groups and the generous people of Pleasanton, California. 

So while the container is ready to be packed with medical equipment and humanitarian donations and was scheduled to leave on Saturday, the annual mission will not go ahead.

“The books [are the children’s] favourite thing, they love being able to select their books. So we’ll have a lot more for next year,” Ms. Barkdull said. 

Research from B.Y.U. estimates eight per cent of Samoan youth will be affected by rheumatic heart disease, so as well as screening, the project conducts genetic research to understand why the disease is so prevalent in Samoa.

Another component of the visits are educational: teaching parents, teachers and children to treat coughs seriously and to seek medical assistance soon and often.

The primary cause of rheumatic heart disease is strep throat causing rheumatic fever, which can permanently damage the heart valves resulting in rheumatic heart disease.

“Rheumatic heart disease begins with a very treatable virus and if they get that treated it doesn’t turn into bigger problem, but there is an ongoing challenge educating parents in the villages about seeing a doctor when they see signs of sore through, and having their children tested for strep,” said Ms. Barkdull.   

Ms. Barkdull said she initially became involved in the Rheumatic Relief effort for personal reasons, wanting to give back to the wider community.

Her family also has a proud history of missionaries who spent time in Samoa, but also has lost loved ones to rheumatic heart disease.

“Our family has taken the humanitarian part of this project on as our family project. We felt our children had been very blessed, and our family had been blessed financially so we needed to give back.

“We became very passionate about this project and wanted to participate.”

But their presence on the project has helped Samoan parents feel safer to bring their children to the screening programmes, Ms. Barkdull said. 

In the earlier years, parents had been keeping their children from school on the days the B.Y.U. team was scheduled to arrive.

“We started the humanitarian part of it to bring over a backpack of school supplies, water bottles, toothbrush and toothpaste per child, and the books,” she said.

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