Babies 'should get heart screening'
All newborn babies should be routinely screened for life-threatening heart defects using a simple and painless test, researchers have said.
The pulse oximetry test measures blood oxygen levels in newborns by means of a small skin sensor placed on the hands or feet.
A major British study showed it can identify babies with congenital heart defects who would otherwise be missed by doctors.
Many of these infants would under normal circumstances go on to develop serious complications or die.
Identifying the problems early on allows doctors to correct or reduce them with surgery, where possible, or plan medication treatments.
Current techniques for identifying babies with a congenital heart defect involve ultrasound scans and routine physical examinations shortly after birth, but these methods are far from foolproof and many affected babies leave hospital undiagnosed.
The new study, the largest of its kind ever undertaken in the UK, tested the accuracy of pulse oximetry on more than 20,000 babies born at six maternity units across the West Midlands. In all cases the babies appeared to be healthy at birth.
The tests, conducted between February 2008 and January 2009, detected 53 cases of major congenital heart disease, 24 of which were critical. In 35 cases, congenital heart defects were already suspected after ultrasound examinations. But 18 cases identified by pulse oximetry had not been picked up by ultrasound.
The findings were published in an online edition of The Lancet medical journal.
Lead investigator Dr Andrew Ewer, from the University of Birmingham, said: "This study has shown conclusively that this test is advantageous. We would like to see all babies being routinely tested. In this way the test will pick up additional babies who might otherwise have become very ill or even died."