Heart Attacks on the rise in Nigeria: Can this be prevented?
While I was in medical school we were taught that heart attacks are rare in Nigeria. This
may explain why most of my classmates at one of the top medical schools were very poor
at reading Electrocardiograms (interpretation of the electrical activity of the heart over
time). Actually, to this day I remember a younger colleague’s decision to leave Nigeria
was spurred on by the inability of senior consultants to agree on an ECG reading. In fact,
basic ECG interpretation is quite simple for trained physician (even non-physicians) as
many Nigerian doctors who followed “Andrew” will attest to. Globally, all medical
school graduates are expected to be trained to interpret ECGs. Given the increase in
cardiovascular disease in Nigeria e.g. hypertension, strokes, and heart attacks, basic ECG
interpretation is a skill that every practicing physician needs to acquire. In a recent study
by Anadach Group in Lagos, 80% of physicians interviewed indicated that the number of
cardiac cases in their practices was rising.
In fact, it is increasing clear that Nigeria requires more expertise in Cardiology. Nigeria is
unfortunately caught in a double burden of cardiac disease and it is increasingly clear that
we require more expertise in Cardiology. Firstly, diseases of poverty and development
are still rampant – 1 in 10 children die before the age of 1 mostly from preventable causes
and the number of women who die from childbirth is equivalent to a planeload on a daily
basis (Source: Sandra Obiago from Communications For Change). Yet the prevalence of
chronic disease is rising, the number of Lagosians or other city dwellers with heart
attacks, strokes etc attest to this.
Cardiac disease usually affects people during their most productive phases and
consequently have significant impact on their families – a death in this age group could
throw a significant number of dependants into poverty. We all know a story or have a
relative who was doing very well and then became ill or died suddenly leaving behind a
family with no income. There are several predisposing factors to these cardiac diseases
and given the potential financial impact over the next decade on the country, the
government - both as the health regulator and one of the largest employers, and other
employers might wish to consider addressing. Such programs that address risk factors
could include – hypertension and diabetes screening, smoking cessation, increased
exercise and nutritional diet e.g. decreased red meat intake. At very reduced costs, these
proven public health strategies could reduce the future cardiac disease burden for
In addition, there needs to be a drastic improvement in quality of cardiac treatment in
Nigeria. As several cardiac diseases are quite common among the upper strata of society,
it is actually quite shocking that there is very limited adequate modern treatment within
our borders. Yes, several rich Nigerians or senior government employees get sent to the
UK, US, South Africa and now India for cardiac treatment, but with an acute cardiac
incident like a heart attack – it would be difficult for an air ambulance to arrive on time.
Time after time, we hear of stories of people who get to hospitals with chest pain and die
on arrival in hospital or en route.
Basic cardiac support training is not widely up to date in many hospitals. Worse still
most people do not know what to do if they do get chest pain - a common symptom of a
heart attack. In the Anadach’s survey of upper middle class residents in Lagos only 23%
indicated they would go to the nearest heart facility while almost 70% indicated they
would go to their regular medical provider.
Several initiatives to address these deficiencies are ongoing – Dr. Yemi Johnson a US –
trained cardiologist is now practicing out of Lagos. He recently put in the first stent in
Nigeria (which has been widely used for cardiac treatment elsewhere for over 20 years)
and ANPA (Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas) has organized training
of trainers of Advanced Cardiac Life Support linked to selected teaching hospitals to help
embed this in our teaching hospital system.
But Nigeria has another resource which is not being leveraged enough - there at least 50
cardiologists of Nigerian origin in the US which could significantly complement the 100
or so cardiologists practicing in the country. India developed its health tourist industry
with significant input from Indian Physician Diaspora working with physicians and
industrialists in country. Given to the improved technology environment in the country,
we now have innovative ways to connect the Diaspora with in-country physicians. At
Anadach (www.anadach.com) we recently organized a webinar between the Minister of