Belfast Telegraph

Child deaths raise complex problems

Editor's Viewpoint

The death of little Harry Starrett on his grandfather's Armagh farm at first seemed to be another devastating farming accident. Now it has been confirmed that the six-year-old boy died from natural causes, probably due to an underlying and undetected heart problem. That does not ease the devastation of the family at the loss of the child and it again raises the issue of sudden death among young, apparently fit boys and girls.

In Italy where there is mandatory screening for heart defects the number of sudden cardiac deaths has fallen by 90%. In the UK there are an estimated 12 deaths of people aged under 35 every week from undetected heart conditions.

Campaigners believe that a screening programme similar to that in Italy would save many lives.

Yet, as experts point out, this is not a simple issue. The causes of sudden deaths among young people are complex and there is no single test which would cover all potentially lethal defects or conditions. Even if there were, some of the conditions are incurable. It is often the case that campaigns proffer a seemingly simple solution – in this case a screening programme – which is at odds with the reality.

Aside from the medical issues, there is the inescapable problem of finance. Given the range of modern medicine there are ever-increasing demands on the health budget. Should more money be devoted to research into and treatment of cancer, for example, which is the biggest killer disease and increasing in prevalence? Many other lobby groups could make compelling arguments for their special interest cases.

However that is not to say calls for more screening are without merit. Undoubtedly lives could be saved and that poses questions for Health Minister Edwin Poots. Does he leave screening in the hands of charities like Cardiac Risk in the Young, offer some statutory assistance or introduce a full-scale government-funded programme?

These are questions which are worthy of debate and which families like the Starretts will await answers to with great interest.

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