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Experts back new test for screening infants for heart problems

A simple test to screen babies for congenital heart problems could soon be available, after the UK National Screening Committee recommended a trial in England.

The pulse oximetry test involves placing a clip on a baby’s fingers and toes to measure the amount of oxygen in their blood.

Experts say it could help the NHS find many more babies with serious heart defects and prevent deaths and long-term disability.

“Pulse oximetry has the potential to detect more babies with congenital heart defects”

Anne Mackie

Documents published on 7 May show the UK National Screening Committee wants to see the approach piloted in England.

“This is an exciting prospect. Pulse oximetry has the potential to detect more babies with congenital heart defects to save lives and make sure they get the care they need before they become seriously ill,” said Dr Anne Mackie, the committee’s director of programme.

“However, the test will also identify many, many other babies with low oxygen. Some will need care for other problems and some will not be ill at all,” she said.

Congenital heart defects affect about 3,500 newborn babies each year. Babies are screened as part of the NHS Fetal Anomaly Screening Programme and the NHS Newborn and Infant Physical Examination, but the new test will help identify more babies with heart problems at an early stage.

The committee said a pilot would explore the impact of using the test on services for newborn babies.

The recommendation, which was welcomed by the Children’s Heart Federation, was made at the committee’s March meeting.

Federation chief executive Anne Keatley-Clarke said: “This simple test can prevent many babies born with life-threatening conditions from leaving hospital without being diagnosed.”

Louise Silverton, director of midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives, said “We welcome these new recommendations and expansion of the current screening services.

“The RCM monitored the pilot study, which showed that children with serious but rare conditions can be discovered and treated,” she added. “This test can make a huge difference for babies, mothers and families.”

At the same meeting, the committee recommended against national screening for both dental disease and coeliac disease.

It concluded screening for dental disease among children aged six to nine was not effective and that money would be better spent on preventative programmes.

Meanwhile, a review of evidence found no health improvements from treating coeliac sufferers who were not displaying symptoms.

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