Rheumatic heart disease (RHD) remains a neglected disease of poverty. While nearly eradicated in high-income countries due to timely detection and treatment of acute rheumatic fever, RHD remains highly prevalent in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) and among indigenous and disenfranchised populations in high-income countries. As a result, over 30 million people in the world have RHD, of which approximately 300,000 die each year despite this being a preventable and treatable disease. In LMICs, such as in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia, access to cardiac surgical care for RHD remains limited, impacting countries’ population health and resulting economic growth. Humanitarian missions play a role in this context but can only make a difference in the long term if they succeed in training and establishing autonomous local surgical teams. This is particularly difficult because these populations are typically young and largely noncompliant to therapy, especially anticoagulation required by mechanical valve prostheses, while bioprostheses have unacceptably high degeneration rates, and valve repair requires considerable experience. Devoted and sustained leadership and local government and public health cooperation and support with the clinical medical and surgical sectors are absolutely essential. In this review, we describe historical developments in the global response to RHD with a focus on regional, international, and political commitments to address the global burden of RHD. We discuss the surgical and clinical considerations to properly manage surgical RHD patients and describe the logistical needs to strengthen cardiac centers caring for RHD patients worldwide.
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