Legislature considers testing of newborns for heart defects

Posted: March 21, 2011

TRENTON - Newborns in New Jersey would have to be tested for congenital heart disease under legislation that continues to advance in the Legislature.

It would require that pulse oximetry - a noninvasive and painless test - be administered at least 24 hours after a child's birth. Proponents call it a commonsense way to potentially save lives, and note that some hospitals already require it.

Experts say roughly one child in 100 is born with structural problems in the heart, most of which are not diagnosed before birth. They can affect blood flow through the heart, lungs, and brain.

While some types of congenital heart disease cause few if any health problems for infants, others bring a significant risk of health problems or death if not diagnosed soon after birth.

"We have a mandatory check for hearing on newborns, yet we don't have a mandatory check for life-threatening heart defects," said Assemblyman Jason O'Donnell (D., Bayonne), whose third child was born with congenital heart disease.

"A simple test can save the lives of many infants, and save their families from unimaginable heartache."

The American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2009 stated that the procedure is an accurate, low-cost, low-risk test that can pick up possibly fatal birth defects of the heart otherwise not easily detected.

O'Donnell was one of the bill's primary sponsors in the Assembly, which passed it, 78-0, last Monday. It now heads to the state Senate, where it has been referred to the Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee. Sen. Richard Codey (D., Essex) is sponsoring the measure in that chamber.

However, that panel has not scheduled a public hearing on the proposal.

The low-cost pulse-oximetry test - commonly known as "pulse ox" - measures the percent of oxygen in the blood and whether a baby's heart and lungs are healthy.

The pulse ox is placed on the baby's foot by a sticky strip, similar to a Band-Aid, and takes just a few minutes to perform. A low pulse-ox reading would likely prompt medical professionals to seek more testing for the infant, such as a heart ultrasound or echocardiogram.

While the pulse-oximetry test may not identify all congenital heart disease, proponents call it a "significant and sensible step" toward early detection of potential problems.

"With the passage of this bill, New Jersey would lead the way in improving how we deal with newborn screenings in this day and age," said Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D., Paramus), who sponsored the bill in that chamber along with O'Donnell and Ruben Ramos Jr. (D., Hoboken).

"One test will not only protect newborns and parents, but also hospitals and doctors," Wagner said. "I can think of no better present for any future parents than to know that we are putting into place a measure that will protect their child."

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