Neonatal Cardiac Screening recommended by the Lancet

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Mr Oen died of a totally unexpected cardiac arrest following a training session in Arizona. He was justifiably expected to be a real medal contender at the Olympic Games this year.

Mr Oen's sudden and untimely death occurred at a time when it seems that the condition of Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS) is in the spotlight. We all remember Fabrice Muamba's collapse on the pitch during a football match for Bolton Wanderers, from which he thankfully appears to be making a marvellous recovery.

Dale Oen was an extremely fit young man, at the pinnacle of his sporting career. He had no previous symptoms of any heart problems and there is no suggestion of any drug abuse. He was dedicated to his sport and to giving his best performance in the Olympic Games that he was working towards. In spite of this Mr Oen sadly died extremely suddenly of heart failure. According to news reports, emergency medical assistance arrived very quickly but unfortunately was unable to save his life.

I have recently blogged on the possibility of testing our young adults for potential heart defects, but this has now come even more to the fore of medical and press attention.

In the online Lancet on 2 May 2012, one of the most respected medical journals, it is suggested that pulse oxiemetry testing of newborn babies who are asymptomatic (i.e. have no symptoms of heart problems antenatally or at birth) at 48 hours of age (but not below 24 hours of age), could have significant success in detecting otherwise undiagnosed heart problems that could manifest themselves in adolescence or early adulthood.

The test, which is quick, relatively cheap and painless, looks at the level of oxygen saturated haemoglobin in a newborn baby's blood, which could be critical in diagnosing an otherwise asymptomatic heart defect. It relies upon the same principles as having the grey clothes peg attached to your finger that every surgical or maternity patient will be familiar with.

The Lancet's findings were that the overall sensitivity of pulse oxiemetry for detection of critical congenital heart defects was 76·5%. This cannot diagnose all heart defects which an individual may experience in later life, but given that all newborns are checked for a heart murmur after 24 hours, it does not seem a big step to take, if it can predict and therefore prevent, serious heart problems in our adolescents and young adults to come, and in particular, prevent the death of promising young athletes such as Fabrice Muamba and Dale Oen.

Kym Provan
Senior Solicitor - Clinical Negligence team

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