London: British scientists have claimed that a new screening technique, called pulse oximetry, could help detect the most serious heart defects in newborn babies and thus save hundreds of lives worldwide every year.
A number of babies are born globally every year with what doctors call critical congenital heart defects - physical abnormalities so severe that they will probably die very early in life unless they receive surgery.
However, usually there are no outward signs that anything is wrong, and the first a parent knows about it is when their baby suddenly becomes extremely ill. Current screening methods which rely on pre-natal ultrasound and clinical assessment are thought to pick up about half of cases.
Now, a team at Queen Mary, University of London, says in `The Lancet` journal, that the two-minute pulse oximetry test could raise that to nearly three-quarters.
The test involves a simple clip being placed on a toe, which measures the amount of oxygen in the blood. Babies with low blood oxygen are sent for further tests, according to the scientists.
Dr Shakila Thangaratinam, who led the team, said: "Heart defects in newborn babies are thankfully rare but their potential impact is devastating. This study is really important because by including such large numbers of babies, we can show that pulse oximetry is effective at picking up defects, without misdiagnosing healthy babies."
For their research, the scientists analysed 13 previous studies, looking at results from almost 230,000 babies. They found pulse oximetry could identify 76.5 per cent of critical congenital heart defects as compared to just half using the current methods, `The Daily Telegraph` reported.
Dr Thangaratinam added: "We know that of those babies with undiagnosed heart defects which go on to die, 50 per cent die at home or in the emergency room, because they never make it to surgery. The whole point of pulse oximetry is to make sure more are identified earlier and get surgery they need."
The scientists emphasised that pulse oximetry could not flag up congenital heart defects which manifested themselves later in life, such as those which caused heart attacks in apparently healthy young adults.