Baby heart defect test 'could save lives'

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Media captionThe test that could spot heart defects in newborn babies

A quick and cheap test could save the lives of babies born with congenital heart defects, doctors say.

A study of 20,055 newborns, published in The Lancet, showed testing oxygen in the blood was more successful than other checks available.

The researchers have called for the oxygen test to be used in hospitals across the UK.

The British Heart Foundation said the test could "make a real difference" as cases go unnoticed.

Congenital heart defects - such as holes between chambers in the heart and valve defects - affect around one in every 145 babies.

They are detected by ultrasound during pregnancy or by listening to the heart after birth, however, the success rate is low.

Decades old

Doctors at six maternity hospitals in the UK used pulse oximeters - a piece of technology which has been around for 20 years - to detect levels of oxygen in the blood.

If the levels were too low, or varied between the hands and feet, more detailed examinations took place.

The test takes less than five minutes and it found 75% of the most serious abnormalities. In combination with traditional methods, 92% of cases were detected.

While some defects are inoperable, advances in surgery mean most can be corrected.

Image caption Oximeters have been used to monitor oxygen levels for a long time

Dr Andrew Ewer, the lead researcher at the University of Birmingham, called for the test to be adopted by hospitals across the UK.

"It adds value to existing screening procedures and is likely to be useful for identification of cases of critical congenital heart defects," he said.

Dr David Elliman, from the UK National Screening Committee, said the screening programme for infants was being reviewed and "this research will form an integral part of that review".

Amy Thompson, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: "Early and rapid detection is key for greater survival.

"Not all babies who are born with a heart defect will show any signs or symptoms, so problems can go unnoticed. This is a promising piece of research which shows how a quick and simple test could help to detect more heart defects and make a real difference."

In the US, some states have already introduced the oximeter test.

Dr William Mahle, from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, and Dr Robert Koppel, from Cohen Children's Medical Center in New York, argued that: "The decision to introduce another screening assay for newborn babies is one that should be made after careful consideration.

"Health-care systems in the developed world are already heavily burdened. Yet the compelling data provided [here] support inclusion of pulse oximetry into the care of the newborn baby."

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