Cardiac specialists target 60 free open heart operations In an interview, veteran cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon Dr Wilfred Muteweye said potentially life-saving surgery and other procedures for heart patients will resume soon.

Sifelani Tsiko-Innovations Editor

A TEAM of Zimbabwean cardiac specialists will perform 60 free open heart surgeries this year as they scale up efforts to significantly reduce the backlog of people needing treatment.

In an interview, veteran cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon Dr Wilfred Muteweye said potentially life-saving surgery and other procedures for heart patients will resume soon.

“The open heart surgery programme is continuing after a break in December and part of January. The cumulative number of cases is now 22 patients. We lost a total of three patients, the other 19 are doing well,” he said.

“We continue to have support from the Government. None of our patients are paying for the surgeries. We are planning to start doing open heart surgery for children this year, probably in July-August. Our target for this year is to do a minimum of 60 open heart surgeries.”

Zimbabwe resumed open heart surgery at Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals last June after the services were stopped in 2018.

From 2018 to 2023, patients had to fork out huge sums of money to seek treatment in South Africa, India, Kenya, Italy, Sudan and other countries offering open heart surgery.

Health experts say a heart operation in India costs anything between US$8 000 to US$15 000 depending on the complexity of the case.

In Zimbabwe, open heart operations are done free of charge.

The country has between 500 and 600 adult patients with rheumatic heart disease awaiting surgery while about 4 000 children are born every year with congenital heart deformities that need open heart surgery.

“We have the capacity to conduct these operations and even more complex heart surgery. We are gradually building up our capacity and our team is becoming more efficient,” Dr Muteweye said.

“The operation times are now shorter, that is the time when the patient is on the operating table, and the average stay in the intensive care unit has also become shorter.”

The Government is supporting the provision of this vital heart service to help address the significant backlog of people awaiting heart treatment.

“As for rolling out the programme, at the moment we have three cardiac surgeons working in the public sector and the three of us make a good team for one centre,” said Dr Muteweye.

“Cardiac surgery requires team work, one surgeon can quickly burn out. However, as we get more trained surgeons, we will roll out open heart surgery to other parts of the country. 

“For now, with the team that we have, we want to strengthen and perfect it so that when the programme spreads to the rest of the country, the new centres won’t have to have teething problems. They will just build on the foundation that we would have laid.”

The Zimbabwean team is made up of well-trained surgeons, anaesthetists, perfusion and critical care cadres.

Zimbabwe has a history of heart operations that dates back to 1959.

“The first case of open heart surgery in Zimbabwe was reported in 1959. The surgeons then (Dr NJ Micklem and Dr GVS Wright) did not use a heart-lung machine but used external body cooling methods to stop the heart and reduce the metabolic rate,” Dr Muteweye said.

“They were able to successfully operate on a 15-year-old boy who had a diseased pulmonary valve. In the 1970s and 1980s, a philanthropic team from Loma Linda University, California, US, used to visit Zimbabwe and they would do open heart surgery.

“The team then managed to set up the local team which operated from 1988-92. The open heart surgery programme became a kind of permanent feature from 1994, being run by the likes of Dr David Chimuka and Dr William Mahalu.

“However, in 2003, the programme ceased due to lack of foreign currency to purchase the consumables. Over 400 patients had benefited. 

“In 2016, the programme resumed under the leadership of Dr Chimuka and ran until October 2018. Again the reason for cessation was difficulties in procuring consumables. On June 22, 2023, we operated on the first of the 12 patients that we have done so far. The current resumption has been led by Dr Simukayi Machawira.”

Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death globally with more than 19 million deaths per year reported, according to a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Globally, heart disease-related deaths increased from 12,4 million in 1990 to 19,8 million in 2022.

Health experts say the regions of Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East are estimated to have the highest burden of deaths due to heart related diseases, with high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, dietary risks and air pollution being the leading causes.

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