A new mobile gadget that detects heart ailments will no doubt provide hope to the estimated 10 to 20 million people affected by hypertension in sub-Saharan Africa.
Unlike most conventional machines that are delicate, relatively expensive, require servicing and use consumable items, the reusable, 12-lead electrocardiogram belt (ECG) belt does not require the use of disposable electrodes or paper for printing test results. The secure storage of ECG tracings is an added cost.
All these factors limit ECG use and availability in developing countries.
In 2014, the World Health Organisation estimated the prevalence of hypertension to be over 40 per cent in the adult population of most African countries. Recent studies in sub-Saharan Africa have also reported an increase in the prevalence of cardiovascular disease risk factors in rural areas.
A study of 2,282 adults in Uganda reported that age-standardised prevalence of hypertension was 14.6 per cent compared to low prevalence cited by other studies citing a 1 to 3 per cent prevalence of hypertension in rural sub-Saharan Africa.
For instance, a recent population based, survey of 4,396 individuals aged above 49 years in Nakuru County in Kenya revealed a high prevalence of hypertension of 50.1 per cent.
Although the highest prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors in this study was reported in urban areas, risk factors were more pronounced among rural dwellers compared with their urban counterparts.
According to the Kenya Cardiac Society, there is a need to detect hypertension and rheumatic heart disease cases in Kenya through regular blood pressure checks.
"Rheumatic heart disease is the most common cause of heart failure in children and adults below 35 years. It is preventable and treatable as it arises from a poorly treated sore throat," said Dr Bernard Gitura, a consultant cardiologist who is also president of the Kenya Cardiac Society.
In 2015, the first nationwide survey on non-communicable diseases by the Ministry of Health, the STEPwise survey, revealed low awareness of heart health in Kenya. The survey found that 23.8 per cent of Kenyans had high blood pressure, yet 56 per cent had never been screened for it. Also, 39 per cent of the population were found to be obese.
Dr Anders Barasa, a cardiologist and lecturer at Aga Khan University said the rise in rheumatic heart disease and cardiovascular disease could partly be attributed to the growing middle class indulgence in sugar-rich, high-cholesterol diets, lack of exercise, a sedentary lifestyle and lack of regular medical checkups.
"More young people are eating lots of processed fast foods and neglecting exercise and regular medical check-ups that could alert them to the possible development of heart disease," said Dr Barasa.
Developed by LevMed, a medical technology firm, the ECG belt is wrapped around a client's chest for a rapid and non-invasive test that can be carried out by medical personnel and even people without medical or nursing school training.