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We have a moral, social and economic responsibility to consign RHD to the history books

28 Jan 2016

Rheumatic heart disease (RHD) is a disease of the world’s poorest, most vulnerable communities and its widespread neglect has caused untold human suffering.


Johanna Ralston, CEO, World Heart Federation

RHD is a form of cardiovascular disease (CVD) that affects over 32 million people around the world and claims 275,000 lives every year. It most often begins in childhood as strep throat and if left untreated it can progress to serious heart damage that kills or debilitates adolescents and young adults, and makes pregnancy dangerous.

Yet this is a treatable and preventable disease that we can eradicate

There is only one way to prevent, control and eliminate this sentinel disease of poverty: by ensuring that endemic countries build robust universal health coverage (UHC) systems which include integrated services for RHD.

UHC is defined as ‘ensuring that all people can use [the] health services they need, of sufficient quality to be effective, while also ensuring that the use of these services does not expose the user to financial hardship’.

The existence of RHD in a country or region indicates both the need for, and lack of comprehensive UHC. If countries struggling with the burden of RHD do not progress towards UHC, they will fail to prevent and control the disease sustainably or equitably, causing untold social, economic and human suffering.

The global RHD burden brings to light the sound economic case for UHC supported by 267 leading international economists: the estimated cost of the 222,000 deaths from RHD in 2010 was $5.4 trillion.

Speaking as a founding partner of the RHD Action Alliance, we at the World Heart Federation believe that all RHD-endemic countries can make progress towards UHC regardless of income level. However, it is clear that difficult choices and ‘trade-offs’ will have to be made, as every health system is constrained by resources. In RHD-endemic countries, UHC systems will need to focus on inclusivity, coverage and financial protection, as these are the three dimensions of UHC most applicable to RHD.

Today at the 138th Session of the World Health Organization Executive Board in Geneva, RHD Action launches a policy brief on the need to integrate RHD services into national universal health coverage packages. It sets out the compelling case for integration and offers concrete actions to make this humanitarian vision a reality.

All governments have already committed to establishing or furthering UHC. But progress has been insufficient and uneven, with catastrophic results for human health and global development.

Now we are at the dawn of the new sustainable development agenda, it is time for us to work together through our global movement towards UHC and consign RHD to the history books.