Postcard from Cambodia: Professor Chris Semsarian

27 June 2012

Chris Semsarian screens a young patient in the Cambodian village of Sophy.
Chris Semsarian screens a young patient in the Cambodian village of Sophy.

Cardiologist Chris Semsarian writes about the remarkable impact of the 500 Hearts project, a University-funded initiative spearheaded by Dr Louise Shewan that involves some of the world's leading heart specialists.

In rural Cambodia, I took part in a research project like no other. We spent a week evaluating Cambodian children aged from 5 to 15 for evidence of rheumatic heart disease.

The initiative, supported by the University of Sydney's International Program Development Fund and the Sydney Medical School, saw a team of researchers from around the world, including locals from Cambodia, visit the small village of Sophy, approximately 2.5 hours drive west of Siem Reap on the Thai border. For me, it was a total eye-opener in every way!

At the age of 45, I had never stayed in a place with such poverty. No electricity, no clean water, the lowest of living standards. Yet meeting the children and families was amazing. The smiles were heart warming. The love and appreciation they showed us was infinite. We set up our medical centre at the local school and clinically evaluated and performed heart checks on a total of 500 Cambodian children in just over four days.

What were we looking for? We wanted to determine how frequently children get rheumatic heart disease (RHD), a totally preventable disease if treated and prevented with antibiotics. While rare in affluent countries, RHD is a major public health problem in the developing world in populations living in poverty with low socio-economic status and limited access to adequate healthcare.

Current estimates suggest 15.6 million people worldwide have RHD with 282,000 newly diagnosed cases and 233,000 deaths each year. RHD causes damage to the structures of the heart including the valves. Our former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has required heart valve surgery because of RHD as a child. Importantly, early case identification of RHD in children is critical to reduce the risk of advanced valvular disease by implementing effective programs of prevention and control.

We were able to provide stocks of antibiotics to the local hospital so that children with early rheumatic changes could be treated. We helped educate the community, including local medical students and doctors. Its a small step, but the journey has only just begun.

We are now planning our next visit in October this year. We will visit a different village in Cambodia, closer to Siem Reap. We hope to be able to identify more children at risk of developing heart problems and initiating early prevention therapy so that they don't develop heart disease.

As on the previous visit, there will also be extra bits, providing the locals with over 200kg worth of clothes, toys, dental hygiene kits, books, colouring pencils, soccer balls and other fun stuff!

I must confess that in all the research I have conducted to date, our initiative amongst the children and families in rural Cambodia touched my heart more than any other.

Perhaps it's the smiles of the Cambodian children, or maybe the appreciation and hope amongst their parents. Maybe its the awesome team I was a part of, with professors, medical students, nurses, archaeologists, and many locals all working together with a common goal to serve a community.

Whatever it is, I have developed a real passion for this important initiative to help prevent heart disease in the children of Cambodia.

Chris Semsarian is a Professor of Medicine at the University of Sydney and a cardiologist at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He is also head of Molecular Cardiology Research at the Centenary Institute. Louise Shewan is a researcher with the Angkor Research Program and an Honorary Research Fellow at Sydney Medical School.

Contact: Richard North

Phone: 02 9351 3191

Email: 11512d3d280b057b1a5d314122151b1c280b030b1d543522440b3e