New Delhi: Quietly, India has been helping mend Afghan hearts. With hundreds of children in war-torn Afghanistan dying of congenital heart disease every year, many are now coming here for inexpensive treatment, thanks to a collaborative venture.
"Hundreds of children in Afghanistan lose their lives every year to complications arising from congenital heart defects. There is little or no medical infrastructure in place and very few cases are detected early, much less cured," Salim Bahramand, general health director in the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) said.
For the past few months, Bahramand has been working closely with the Max India Foundation to treat Afghan children affected by this fatal heart problem. Together they have successfully treated 35 Afghan children and plan to expand the programme to treat, on a monthly basis, 30 Afghan patients from all the 35 provinces of Afghanistan.
Bahramand with his team has compiled a list of 2,200 patients, mostly children from newborns to 11-year-olds, suffering from these heart complications, in Afghanistan.
Based on the number in the waiting list and the severity of the ailment, he sends them to Rehman Hospital in Pakistan or the Max Hospital in south Delhi`s Saket area.
Doctor Viresh Mahajan, head of department of paediatric cardiology in Max Hospital, who spearheaded this project with Bahramand, said: "One factor responsible for the high rate of this disease is the prevalent custom of consanguineous marriage."
The disease being strongly hereditary in nature, the death toll rises as first cousins after marriage pass the genes on to their offspring.
Shabnam, 6, was suffering from high lung pressure due to her heart ailment and in six more months would have suffered a complete lung failure. She was flown in from her hometown in Kabul a week ago and given treatment.
"Doctor Mahajan has told me that she`s in a stable condition now, and within a couple of days, will resume a normal childhood. I cannot thank him enough," said her father Mir Wais, 36, a cartpuller in Kabul.
Just out of the intensive care unit (ICU), Muzdha, 7, welcomes visitors with a faint smile. "The case of Muzdha is quite extraordinary," Bahramand said.
"She was suffering from a complex cyanotic heart problem with which less than 30 percent of the children live up to be 7. Most doctors and experts had given up on her. Still under observation, she`s received the treatment well and is now expected to live a healthy life in her hometown of Mazar-e-Sharif," said Bahramand.
Hari Boolchandani, head of International Patient Services in Max Healthcare, said that the cost of treatment is a major factor prompting patients` families to come to India.
He said an American hospital takes $100,000 to treat these heart complications while in South Africa it costs around $30,000. The same operation in India, with one of the highest success rates of 97.5-98 percent, costs around $4,500-5,000.
The cost of Afghan patient`s airfare, surgery and lodging is borne by ARCS and the Max India Foundation together.
One reason for high mortality rate in Aghanistan, Bahramand said, was the absence of proper equipment for fetal cardiography, a scan through which physical complications in the foetus can be detected early.
"During cardiography, which may be carried out when the baby is 16-17 weeks old, if complications are detected early, which may put the life of the child and its mother in peril in later stages, the doctors usually advise termination of pregnancy. This operation helps in containing child mortality rates to a great extent," said Mahajan.
Mahajan and Bahramand are jointly working to train manpower in Afghanistan to attend to immediate, minor cases.
"Purchasing equipments isn`t the main challenge here, nor is setting up the facility. The challenge is to produce trained and qualified doctors who`re capable of attending to these cases in their home so that their dependency on us is reduced, and they become better equipped to fight this battle on their own," said Mahajan.
"Currently, Afghan patients constitute a major chunk of international patients visiting Delhi, and till political stability is established there, we expect the numbers to increase," Boolchandani said.
ARCS is a non-profit organisation working for the people of Afghanistan on the same lines of the American or Indian Red Cross societies.
Apart from Shubnum and Muzdha, Parwan, four months old, Mina, 3 years, and Miwand, 7, who were suffering from lethal complications like a hole in the heart to a leaking valve in the heart, have found new life thanks to this collaborative effort.