Counting Kids: Researching Heart Defects in Dohuk

Alicia and Dr. Kirk

Right off the bat, I got to be a part of something awesome here in Iraq. I joined PLC’s groundbreaking research in the city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Many reports in recent years claim that there are more heart defects in Iraq than other countries in the Middle East. In Fallujah, news reports state 10 times more birth defects than the world average. However, these numbers are based on general observations, not a systematic study. Is it possible that doctors who only see sick children would think there are many more birth defects than there really are?

The best way to find out if there are more kids being born with broken hearts is to count all the children who are born, then see how many have heart defects are detected. That way, the number of healthy babies can be compared to the number of babies with defects to get an accurate ratio of sick to healthy babies. This is exactly what we did in the city of Dohuk.

Dr. Kirk scans a baby, another doctor looks on

Alongside long-time friend and partner of PLC, Dr. Kirk Milhoan and Dr. Serdar Pedawi, I was a part of a research team working to identify the heart defect “incidence” or number of new cases of babies born with heart defects out of all babies born over a certain time period. We set up camp at Azadi Teaching Hospital in Dohuk, and every child that was born came to us to be screened for heart defects.

This was done using an echocardiogram (ECHO) machine, which is similar to an ultrasound that allows pregnant mothers to see their babies. It provides a way to look at the heart from the outside, quickly and painlessly. All children born in Azadi Hospital during the week of the study had to be screened in order to obtain their birth certificate, so we were able to screen more than 180 kids!

Each individual encounter was very similar. The moms were usually too worn out from childbirth to bring the babies to us (understandably so!). It fell to the grandmothers and aunts to take care of the newborn while mom got some rest. It was beautiful to see how much love and care was shown to each baby we screened. They were all wrapped tightly in brightly colored clothes and tucked into what I can only describe as a fancy baby sleeping bag.

Aunt and grandmothers at the ready to help

The children truly lived up to the phrase of “bundles of joy.” The pride and joy of family members was evident, but with it came the anxious fear that their baby could have something wrong with their heart. Immediately at the time of the screening we could tell the family the result of the ECHO.

Thankfully, the vast majority of children had completely normal hearts and their family was always relieved and ecstatic to hear the good news. But there were some babies who did indeed have heart defects. Some had leaky heart valves and others had holes in their heart. Assurance was given to the families that these were not immediately life-threatening emergencies, but that their baby needed to be checked again in a few weeks to see what kind of treatment would be needed to live a normal healthy life.

Dr. Serdar works full time as a Pediatric Cardiologist in Dohuk, and thus will take care of these babies directly. Research can sometimes be all about collecting numbers, but this research heavily emphasized providing practical medical care for those who were found to have heart defects.

Dr. Kirk preforms an ECHO on a baby

It was an absolutely incredible experience to interact with the Kurdish and Arab families in Dohuk as well as to be a part of a first-ever scientific study. It was very fulfilling to contribute to the gathering of facts, which is a large part of why I’m pursuing a Master’s in Public Health. Having solid facts puts Preemptive Love Coalition that much closer to eradicating the backlog by treating kids who need lifesaving heart surgeries.

This research is the first step in providing information for the Kurdish Regional and Iraqi Central Government and any other organization that wants an answer to the question: how many Iraqi children are being born with heart defects?

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