Screening babies for heart defects could save lives

A simple sensor used on babies to detect heart problems could prevent further deaths

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All babies should be routinely screened at birth for life-threatening heart defects using a simple, painless test, researchers have said.

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The pulse oximetry test measures newborn blood oxygen levels using a small skin sensor on the hand or foot. Dr Andrew Ewer, lead researcher from the University of Birmingham, said the test was painless and non-invasive, and usually took place 24 hours after birth. When asked how it is done, he said, “A small probe is put on the babies hand and then on the foot, the machine is switched on and you get a reading. That’s it.”

The test can identify whether babies have congenital heart defects, which sadly still cause infant deaths in the Western world. Without this test, the symptoms are often missed by doctors. In some instances where a doctor has diagnosed a baby at a later stage, the baby has either developed serious complications or died.

By identifying the issues earlier on in a baby’s life, this increases the chances of doctors correcting the problem or reducing it with surgery or prescribed medication.

In comparison to ultrasound scans and routine physical examinations shortly after birth, which pick up on about half of all affected babies, the pulse oximetry test can identify three quarters of these children alone. When combined with the findings of the ultrasound and physical examination, the detection rate rises by a staggering 92%.

The findings, based on a study of more than 20,000 babies born across six maternity units in the West Midlands, were published in an online edition of The Lancet medical journal.

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“I think we now have enough evidence to say that pulse oximetry screening should be incorporated into everyday clinical practice,” said Dr Ewer.

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