On September 29th, World Heart Day, the global health community will raise awareness about cardiovascular disease (CVD). Cardiovascular diseases range from heart failure, meaning the heart is not pumping enough blood, to a heart attack, which happens when blood vessels are damaged and blood flow to the heart is blocked. An estimated 17.3 million people died from CVD in 2008 and over 80% of all CVD deaths occur in low and middle income countries. This year, we are also raising awareness of one of CVD’s “hidden causes”: neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), and of the research necessary to combat these killers.
A group of parasitic and bacterial infections that disproportionately affect people in poverty, NTDs may be an important factor in the burden of CVD in the developing world. These diseases cause fever, disfiguring sores, visual impairment and organ failure. This includes heart damage that leads to CVD later in life. Chagas disease, a parasitic infection afflicting over 10 million individuals worldwide (including an estimated 300,000 people right here in the United States), can eventually cause heart failure if the parasite damages heart tissue. Up to 70% of individuals with African sleeping sickness will experience some degree of heart damage. Over 200 million individuals have schistosomiasis, another parasitic infection that can lead to lasting heart damage if the parasite invades the heart muscle. And dengue fever – another NTD emerging in the U.S. – has also been shown to reduce heart function in severe cases.
These risks highlight the importance of early detection and prevention of NTDs. U.S. researchers and federal agencies have made progress against many of these diseases and we must make sure to equip them with the diagnostic tools and drugs necessary to treat patients before they sustain heart damage. Similarly, improved surveillance and screening programs are needed to truly understand how many of the world’s CVD cases can be attributed to NTDs. In addition to prevention strategies like healthy eating and exercise, investment for NTD research is an important component in reducing the global burden of cardiovascular disease. To learn more about NTDs, please visit Research!America’s global health website.
-Morgan McCloskey, global health intern