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Up Close: BYU Project Tests Samoan Children For Heart Conditions

PROVO, Utah – A BYU project called the “Rheumatic Relief” project is helping to heal children’s hearts and save hundreds of lives on the islands of Samoa.

Lori Allen founded the program along with her husband, Dr. Marvin Allen.

“We are trying to find children who have damaged hearts, who are in their uniforms going to school, and they have no idea,” Lori Allen said.

She said the kids have no idea that their hearts are actually sick and can only get better through proper treatment.

To reach all of the children is a monumental task, Allen said.

The program sends BYU students and medical professionals to Samoa once a year to screen thousands of children’s hearts. About 50 people will be going this year.

Allen said Samoa is one of the leading countries in the world with heart disease among children 5-15 years old. The children are not born with the disease but get it like a common cold, starting with a strep throat.

“In the short term, we are trying to find children who can still benefit from penicillin treatment. In the long term, we are trying to prevent it,” Allen said.

Once tests are taken in Samoa, DNA samples are brought back to a BYU lab for testing. The information can be critical in knowing how to treat the symptoms, and maybe figure out what’s causing it.

Students said the experience is one they will never forget.

“It’s heartbreaking to see those severe cases, but to know that we can actually do something – refer them to surgery, give them the penicillin, making sure they are getting the treatment – it’s amazing,” said Lexi Stout, a graduate student who went last year. “Even though it’s only two weeks that we are there, it’s a lifelong difference that we are giving them.”

BYU is working with the Ministry of Health in Samoa to try and understand what is happening. The hope is to train local medical professionals on how to detect the disease.

The next group of BYU students will leave on April 23 and return on May 9.

For more on this project or how to get involved, go to https://biology.byu.edu/rheumatic-relief.

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