Cardiovascular disease (CVD)—which includes heart disease, stroke and other circulatory diseases—has been a leading cause of death worldwide for far too long. It causes over a third of global deaths, claiming more than 18 million lives every year, and, left unchecked, this number is expected to rise to a staggering 23 million by 2030.
Unfortunately, the risks and outcomes of CVD are dramatically affected by factors like race, gender and income, creating a gap that continues to widen. Over three quarters of CVD-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries and women worldwide often face serious obstacles in obtaining care. In an effort to close this deadly gap, one of the three pillars of this year’s World Heart Day—“Use Heart for Humanity”—calls for focused action to strengthen access to heart healthcare for all.
Some of the groundwork has already been laid. Access Accelerated and the World Heart Federation (WHF) have worked in close partnership since 2017 to respond to the heavy burden of CVDs in some of the most vulnerable communities in Africa and Latin America.
The impact of CVD on women in Colombia
In Colombia, CVD is the leading cause of deaths, with close to one million lives lost in 2016—a number that is expected to rise by two thirds by 2035. It is also the country’s number one cause of death in women, who account for over 45% of heart disease-related deaths.
More generally, women are often denied access to basic healthcare—one of the key barriers recognized by the UN in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Even among women, there are significant disparities. Women of African descent in Colombia are at a particularly high risk.
“Women from black communities in Colombia are more likely to live in poverty,” says Juan Carlos Santacruz, Executive Director, Colombian Heart Foundation. “They’re more likely to lack access to health education and care, and they disproportionately face risk factors associated with obesity and hypertension. These socioeconomic disadvantages not only lead to a higher risk of CVD but often hinder diagnosis, prevention and treatment.”
Yet there is hope. About 80% of CVD deaths in Colombia are considered to be preventable. This means that action taken today can have a profound impact tomorrow.
That’s why, with the support of Access Accelerated and the WHF, the Colombian Society of Cardiology and the Colombian Heart Foundation launched the Act with a woman’s heart project. It’s designed to empower females and the health professionals who care for them in three underserved communities with high rates of NCDs among women. The goal is to equip them with the health information, training, and support they need, and begin to close the gap.
“Information is powerful,” says Prof Pablo Perel, Senior Science Advisor, World Heart Federation. “Through this project, women who were largely unaware of CVD risk factors were armed with knowledge and tools to help them make more informed decisions for their health and the health of their families.”
A real-world approach for real-world change
The essence of the project is to provide practical support for women that can be applied to their day-to-day lives, encouraging them to commit to simple lifestyle changes that can nevertheless make a big difference in heart health. As a part of the process, women are invited to become program volunteers, using their own lived experiences and leadership to help other women in their communities.
After five months, of the 400 women who took part in the program, positive change was reported in at least two of the behaviors surveyed—consumption of fruits and vegetables and daily physical activity—with an increase in these activities among 95% of the participants. Over 50% of the women reduced their overall body weight as well as waist circumference, and lower blood pressure was recorded in at least 40% of them. These marked behavioral and physiological improvements show that the project’s approach works.
“The tangible impacts we’ve seen from the project are incredibly encouraging,” says Michael Fredrich, Lead Access to Medicine Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) at Bayer Pharmaceuticals and Chair of the Steering Committee for Access Accelerated. “They show the true power of community-based interventions, and when scaled it can open up a wealth of possibilities for improving the long-term outcomes of CVDs and health literacy for women and the population more generally. The sky’s the limit.”