Rheumatic heart disease (RHD) still affects more patients globally than degenerative valve disease. The vast majority of these patients live in low- to middle-income countries. Once symptomatic, they will need heart valve surgery. Unfortunately, prosthetic valves perform poorly in these patients given their young age, the high incidence of multi-valve disease, late diagnoses and often challenging socio-economic circumstances. Notwithstanding the fact that better valve designs would ideally be available, ill-informed decision making processes between bioprosthetic and mechanical valves are contributing to the poor results. In the absence of multicentred, randomised clinical trials, comparing the current generations of bioprostheses with mechanical valves across all age groups Western guidelines tend to be uncritically applied. As a consequence, mechanical valves are being implanted into patients who are often not able to deal with anticoagulation while bioprosthetic valves may be overly shunned for fear of reoperations. Almost sixty years after the advent of cardiac surgery heart valve prostheses have eventually undergone improvements and several potentially disruptive developments are on the horizon. Until they materialise, however, choices between contemporary valve prostheses need to be made on the basis of individual risk and life-expectancy rather than an uncritical implementation of guidelines that were derived for very different patients and under distinctly different conditions. Given the fast expansion of cardiac surgery in middle-income countries and a growing number of independently operating centres in low-income countries a critical appraisal of facts underlying the choice of heart valve prostheses for patients with RHD seems opportune.
Keywords: Individual risk and life expectancy; Mechanical versus bioprosthetic - heart valves; Rheumatic heart disease.
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