Speech by HE George Vella, President of Malta at the official opening of the Maltese Cardiac Society Conference, 18 October 2019.

President Dr Robert Xuereb and members of the Maltese Cardiac Society

Various professionals in the medical field

Students

It is a great pleasure to be here with you today and together share knowledge on the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. Held annually, this Conference brings together various professional fields together and contributes to further enrich our knowledge on how to protect our hearts and promote healthy lifestyles and prevent cardiac diseases.

I am pleased to note the participation of 19 international speakers hailing from various Universities from Europe and the Middle East. I take the opportunity to congratulate the Maltese Cardiac Society for this multi-cultural approach to science and medicine, particularly the participation of our partners from Lebanon, Israel and Morocco. Dialogue and cooperation, not only at the political level, are crucial to ensure a continuous flow and exchange of research results and collective initiatives to promote human health.

Excuse the pun, but cardiology is not a subject for the fainthearted. It deals with the body’s most vital organ, an organ which since time immemorial was believed to be the seat of man’s most intimate and emotional feelings … love, courage, hate, passion. It is also the body organ most represented on all sorts of best wishes cards, in songs, in literature, religious iconography and opera. And yet, it is only a pump. I have to add a very efficient one at that!

Learning how to draw a heart is probably one of the first images children learn to draw and appreciate. As they grow older, they learn that the heart is not as simple as the drawing, but that it is a fascinating and complicated organ that requires close monitoring and attention.

Recent data from Malta shed positive light on the local situation. In fact, life expectancy in Malta has increased with the national average reaching 81.9 years and there is also a decrease in the deaths from cardiovascular disease. Nonetheless, cardiovascular problems continue to remain the leading cause of death for men and women in Malta.

When I go through the list of eminent speakers on the subject of cardiology as this Conference today, and on the list of topics, I feel humbled by the stature of such competent cardiologists and at the same time impressed at the range of topics to be dealt with in this Conference.

When I graduated from medical school in 1964, the cardiac patient was the cyanotic oedematous, breathless, overweight patients to whom we could not offer anything beyond bed rest, Digoxin, Strophanthin, Aminophylline and diuretic, even mercury containing Mersalyl, before Frusemide became available to relieve the congestion.

The prospects for ischemic heart disease were much worse because if the patient managed to survive the initial attack, if it was not massive, all we had to offer was a 3 month stay in bed, and what was freely available then, TLC – better known as tender loving care.

For me it was a milestone in my medical studies when in 1962 I saw for the first time open heart surgery to relieve a Stenotic Mitral Valve during a clerkship I was doing in a hospital in Berlin. Equally important was the opportunity as a newly qualified doctor to shake hands with Prof. Christiaan Barnard when he visited Malta in the mid 60’s during a formal dinner, some years after he performed the first heart transplant in South Africa.

Most importantly I came to realise how beneficial to the patient modern cardiology had become, when in 2015 I had to be hospitalised urgently during a visit to Beijing, following a Mildyocardial Ischimic attack and had a stent inserted. That was followed a month later by a triple bypass operation here in Malta. It is important for us doctors to become patients at times. Then, see the world from a different point of view.

We have certainly come a long way and patients, me included, should be grateful to the medical profession for having utilised and maximised the use of new materials and sophisticated technologies as they come out on the market in treating cardiac conditions.

Ecocardograms, Perfusion MRI’s, pacemakers, valve replacements, defibrillators, bypass surgery, heart transplants … this is the language of cardiology today. What was futuristic not so many years ago became common practice.

However, I also note that during your presentations you are also emphasising the need for healthy lifestyles to avoid becoming cardiac patients.

Diabetes remains one of the most important factors in cardiopathies in Malta.

Looking at the local situation, recent data shows that besides diabetes, one in five persons in Malta lives with hypertension. This is a cause of great concern and although a huge majority of people receive state funded treatment, Maltese patients continue to sustain unhealthy lifestyles and do not properly understand the link between daily habits and health. It is important to speak about more modern habits such as fast food, saturated fats and the need to guard against supposedly healthy options which are constantly marketed around us. As health practitioners we need to speak up about these counterproductive messages and take the lead to push our Governments to seriously address this issue. Maybe it is time to introduce health warnings on high saturated food and provide customers with a better picture of the contents components and therefore of their effects on the body.

I am confident that the variety of speakers that will address the conference will provide an extensive overview of current research, but also generate discussion on prospects for the future. On this note, I am sure we will find of great interest the upcoming key note speech by the WHO representative Dr Galea Gouden, speaking about artificial intelligence and its role in public health and cardiology. Through various presentations focusing on local but also foreign trends and ground-breaking practices, the conference will provide an excellent platform to generate, exchange and disseminate ideas.

I have note with satisfaction that certain topics of this conference are dealing with the role of general practitioner or specialists in family medicine and cardiology. I think this is most pertinent considering the fact that the family doctor is generally always the doctor of first contact in cardiac emergencies, thus the need for them to be fully conversant with diagnosis and available treatment.

Ladies and gentlemen,

On this note I wish to highlight the excellent conclusion to this conference: the 5KM Fun Run, the open day and public lecture. I believe that this is the perfect conclusion to this high-level conference and greatly complement our national efforts to educate the general public about the risks and to promote alternative, healthy lifestyles.

Education is always key to bring about tangible and cross-generational culture change. In this regard, education should not be limited to school children and teens only, but should include a wider range of the population. Some assume that the sporadic messages by the Health Department promoting healthy lifestyles and a ban on certain foods in schools are enough to reverse the current ill-practices.

I beg to differ. I believe it is important to sustain a yearly outreach program and invite members of the public to take an interest in their heart’s condition and well-being.

In conclusion I would like again to thank the Maltese Cardiac Society for organising this important conference. I am sure that during the coming days, all will appreciate the value of collaboration in the fields of medicine and surgery as well as the great benefits acquired through the sharing of knowledge and experiences.

I wish you fruitful discussions.