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Rheumatic Relief Program team on island offering free screening

Justina Tavana and Natalia Seufale [photo: Blue Chen-Fruean]

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Justina Tavana and Natalia Seufale travelled with the Rheumatic Relief Program team from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah, that visited the territory last week, offering free screening for a disease that is becoming prevalent on the island.

Last year, American Samoa knocked New Zealand from the #1 spot of having the highest incidence of rheumatic heart disease in the world.

Tavana, the associate director of the Rheumatic Relief Program, told Samoa News on Friday that the trip is an internship/ study abroad opportunity for some of the students, and it is also a medical mission.

"This is our first time visiting American Samoa," she said, adding that they have made annual visits to screen people in independent Samoa since 2009.

According to Tavana, their mission is "to alleviate the burden of childhood rheumatic heart diseases through health education, echocardiography screening, and genetic research."

This year's group includes 50 people, 10 of whom came here while the other 40 went to Samoa.

The team is led by program director Dr. Lori Allen and her husband cardiologist Dr. Marv Allen. While here, the group was able to serve kids — who had signed permission slips — from two schools: Manulele Tausala Elementary and Manumalo Academy.

Free screening services were also made available to the general public, during evening hours, at the LDS Stake Centers in Pava'ia'i and Malaeimi.

The team was assisted in their work by members of the Department of Health's Maternal Child Health (MCH) Program and technicians from the LBJ Hospital Lab, as well as Dr. Robi from the Well Baby Clinic in Tafuna.


Rheumatic heart disease (RHD) is a complication of rheumatic fever in which heart valves are damaged.

(A heart valve acts like a one-way door; it ensures that blood pumped by the heart flows in one direction only. Once it is damaged, it can leak and may cause the victim to feel tired all the time, and they may find it hard to breathe.)

Rheumatic fever is an inflammation that begins with strep throat and can affect other parts of the body, specifically the heart, joints, brain, and skin. It may cause permanent damage to heart valves and progress to RHD.

So the next time your child complains of a sore throat, and the discomfort is in conjunction with a fever, medical assistance should be sought immediately.

What may seem like a common occurrence could lead to something more serious — if left untreated.

Antibiotics are the go-to remedy for strep throat. But once it progresses to rheumatic fever — and if left untreated — RHD is the result and while heart surgery may manage some of the problems and prolong life, it will not cure RHD.

The issue with RHD has become such a concern that over the past several years, a team from the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) based in Portland, OR has been traveling to the territory to screen for, and treat, local youngsters suspected of having rheumatic fever, rheumatic heart disease, or heart murmurs — free of charge.

If your child or family member suspects they may have symptoms of RHD, screening is available at the Department of Health every Tuesday by appointment with RHD coordinator Ipu Eliapo-Unutoa.