RHD is the most common killer of young adults in Zambia

From left, Dr Munanga Mwandila, Kirstin Walsh and cardiac surgeon Harsh Singh

A Canterbury-based project started by an Ashburton doctor is saving the lives of people in Africa.

The Mutima Project organises medical volunteers to travel to Zambia to perform life-saving heart surgery.

Zambia has no heart service or surgeon for its 14 million citizens, resulting in more than 400 people dying of Rheumatic Heart Disease (RHD) a year. According to the World Health Organisation, RHD is the most common killer of young adults in Zambia, accounting for approximately 60 per cent of cardiac cases.

This prompted Zambian expat Dr Munanga Mwandila to form the charitable trust with several colleagues in 2009.

Dr Mwandila, who works at Ashburton Hospital, said his inspiration for the project started when he was a junior doctor in Zambia, as he helplessly watched a young mother die from RHD.

“It was a really painful experience, because I knew even then that if she had the simple operation, she would’ve been living a normal life and be a mother to her two children.”

Many Zambians cannot afford to have heart surgery abroad, because the cost of US$25,000 (NZ$29,000) is too great – more than 60 per cent of Zambians live in poverty.

“In many cases, when you have a heart condition in Zambia, you have to start preparing for your funeral,” said Auckland City Hospital intensive care nurse Grace Muyoma, a member of the project and a Zambian expat.

The long-term goal of the Mutima Project is to help the Zambian government establish a cardiothoracic unit through their annual visits over five years, Dr Mwandila said.

So far, there has been one trip to Zambia, conducted over three weeks in March 2011, with a team of 30. Seven successful heart operations were completed at the University Teaching Hospital in the capital city, Lusaka.

Theatre nurse at Auckland City Hospital Helen Sargent said the most satisfying thing about the first mission was the outcome of the surgeries for the patients.

“All seven of them had fantastic results,” she said.

“The smiles on the faces of the patients were just amazing. They had a renewed sense of life.”

Dr Mwandila said they did not manage the second annual mission in 2012, because they could not raise enough funds.

However, a second trip is planned for later this year, with the hope of more completed surgeries than on the first trip.

Muyoma said she was touched by New Zealand’s involvement in the Mutima Project. “The Kiwi staff left their lives, families, and jobs to go to the other end of the world to save lives,” she said.

“As someone who has had the privilege and opportunity to come abroad, I almost feel obliged to give back what I can to my country,” Dr Mwandila said.