When babies are born in a hospital, they are routinely tested for conditions such as cystic fibrosis and hearing loss. Yet less than two percent of newborns nationwide are screened for congenital heart defects, or CHDs, which can be deadly if left undetected.
According to a new report by Little Hearts, a national organization that offers education and support to families of CHDs, only 1.8 percent of newborn babies are tested for CHDs, the most common birth defect and leading killer of infants and newborns. Nearly 60 percent of babies in the U.S. who are ultimately diagnosed with CHDs were not screened at birth.
A simple test
The hospitals that do screen for the condition use a pulse-oximetry test, or pulse-ox, to measure oxygen levels in a baby’s blood. A tiny sensor is placed on an infant’s foot, with low oxygen levels indicating a potential CHD within minutes.
“Early detection enables us to quickly identify and pursue a treatment plan for babies born with CHDs, which can help speed their recovery, improve their prognosis and, oftentimes, save their lives,” says Dr. Michael Gewitz, Physician-in-Chief and Chief of Pediatric Cardiology at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y. WMC screens all newborns for CHDs.
Though CHD screening is low-cost, painless and considered highly effective, 95 percent of newborns are only screened if they show symptoms in utero or shortly after birth, or are medically predisposed to the condition, according to Little Hearts.
New laws show promise
Positive change is afoot that might help families of heart children. Last month, Maryland became the first state to pass a law that will help implement CHD screening for all newborns in the state. On June 2, the state of New Jersey followed suit.
As the mother of a five-year-old boy born with multiple critical CHDs, I applaud the legislators, doctors and advocates in Maryland and New Jersey for their efforts. Early detection saved my child’s life and dramatically improved his long-term prognosis, and I believe these laws will help save other children’s lives too.
It is hopeful that more states will pass similar laws. Pennsylvania, Indiana and Tennessee all have CHD screening bills in the works. Minnesota has already implemented the requirement through a state health department mandate, but not through legislation.
There is no federal law requiring CHD screening for newborns, though some babies born with CHDs may be protected later in life under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act if their condition impairs one or more major life activity.
A simple test can do so much. It’s time for every hospital to implement CHD screening for all newborns. It’s very much a matter of life or death.
Megan McDonnell serves on the board of directors of Little Hearts.