A new training program led by the American Heart Association is saving lives in Sub-Saharan Africa and may ultimately help prevent the needless deaths of many young children in developing nations around the globe through better training of health care workers.

The AHA’s “Saving Children’s Lives” pilot program, in collaboration with The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, recently spent a week training medical staff in Tanzania, said John Meiners, executive vice president of the American Heart Association’s Emergency Cardiovascular Care programs.

The training sessions, which include lectures and simulated patient scenarios, are adapted from the AHA’s Pediatric Emergency Assessment, Recognition, and Stabilization training program. The program teaches health care workers in developing countries, where resources are very limited, how to recognize and quickly treat respiratory distress, shock and cardiac arrest in children under age 5.

In Tanzania, for example, the training curriculum was expanded from what would normally be a one day course in the United States to two days. The longer learning curve is required because in many cases, even nurses are not already trained in pediatric emergency care, Meiners said.

“You really don’t understand the environment they are working in until you’ve actually been there,” Meiners said. “It is very difficult and undeveloped territory.”

The program aligns with international targets from organizations such as the World Health Organization, which has sought ways to reduce deaths in children age 5 and younger. Though there have been great strides against infectious diseases like AIDS and Malaria, non-infectious diseases (known as non-communicable diseases) and causes of death are becoming more prominent, Meiners said.

According to the AHA, cardiovascular disease stemming from a variety of health causes, such as malnutrition, is the leading cause of global mortality, accounting for almost 17 million deaths annuall. About half of these deaths —8.4 million— are children under age 5 who have preventable and treatable respiratory failure and shock resulting from pneumonia, diarrhea and sepsis.

“There’s a critical need for our pediatric health education programs in the developing world,” said Meiners. “The AHA has established itself as the global leader in resuscitation science, and our pediatric training programs are the gold standard.”

The program works with the Ministries of Health and other local bodies to develop and refine training programs that are relevant with the available equipment, supplies and existing training protocols in a particular country. The goal is to implement a “train the trainer” approach to empower health care workers to help further develop and sustain these training programs.

Stephen Schexnayder. M.D., (right) an AHA volunteer who helped develop the PEARS curriculum, instructs healthcare workers in Tanzania.

So far, five pilot training sessions have been conducted, with more than 100 healthcare workers in Botswana and Tanzania completing the course earlier this year.

“We’re building a health care system from the bottom up and starting with those at the youngest age,” said Meiners. “The terrible suffering of these children who are dying needlessly makes a tremendous impact on you. It inspires us to rapidly develop this program, and ultimately we’ll save hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Photos courtesy of Amanda Workman