Routine Heart Screening for Kids – the Future of Pediatric Heart Care?

Routine heart screening for adolescents is currently not deemed necessary in the United States, but without it, the congenital heart defect that left a hole in Madelinne d'Aversa's heart would have gone undetected until it created more serious issues, such as heart failure and lung damage.

On a whim, Madelinne's grandmother volunteered her to have her heart checked as part of a local research project known as the Houston Early Age Risk Testing and Screening – HEARTS for short. Madelinne was in sixth grade at the time.

VIDEO: Why you might want to screen your teen athlete for dangerous heart abnormalities

Though she showed no outward signs of a heart condition, the scanning showed a hole in her heart that required surgery.

"It was really emotional at first, because up until now, she had been perfect -- no issues," said Madelinne's mother, Shana Harvey.

"Down the road [this could have caused damage] that was irreversible," she said, adding that they are so grateful doctors were able to catch the problem.

Since her surgery Aug. 3, Madelinne has made a full recovery and now she is back to playing volleyball and dancing at school -- everything's "back to normal," she said.

Led by Dr. John Higgins, a cardiologist at Memorial Hermann Hospital and a professor of cardiology at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, HEARTS is currently providing heart screening to sixth-graders around Houston and -- contingent on future funding -- hopes eventually to screen all sixth-graders in Texas.

Last spring, HEARTS kicked off its research at Key Middle School in Houston and is continuing now at nearby Fleming Middle School, screening 150 students this week.

Out of the 94 kids screened last spring, researchers discovered seven with previously undetected heart conditions, two of which were potentially life-threatening and required surgery.

This incidence of heart conditions, nearly 7 percent for this group, is much higher than researchers anticipated.

"The adjective I would use to describe it is shocking," said Higgins. "Based on the literature, we [predicted] an incidence of about one in 200, but we [continue to get] higher than that number." Higgins says one reason for the seeming increase is that past screenings were limited to student athletes.

"We think the children who have these problems might be [those] who get more out of breath and can't keep up. By having this underlying problem, they might be [selected] out from high level athletics."

Higgins' HEARTS Saving Hearts

Even more compelling than the numbers, Higgins says, is that none of the kids showed outward symptoms at the time of screening and, hence, would have gone undiagnosed and untreated, possibly until it was too late.

"We had 10 sudden cardiac arrests in children last year [in Houston], and these children all had... conditions that would have been detected by our screening" but were not detected by routine checkups.

Higgins says he hopes this research will make a case for the need in the United States of routine pediatric heart screenings. If there is funding, he says he would like to use his research in Texas "as a springboard for the rest of the country."

Screening Is Helpful, But At What Cost?

In other countries, heart screening is an accepted practice in kids.

In Italy, a nationalized program of pediatric heart screening has reduced sudden cardiac death in Italian children, said Dr. Cam Patterson, director of the McAllister Heart Institute at the University of North Carolina.

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