HACKENSACK - In the first nine months after the state required newborns to be tested for heart problems, three infants with critical congenital heart defects - and 17 with other serious conditions that would not have been diagnosed otherwise - were reported to the New Jersey Birth Defects Registry.

The results of the state's mandatory newborn pulse oximetry screening - the first in the nation - are discussed in a study in the journal Pediatrics.

About two of every 1,000 babies in the United States are born with a critical congenital heart defect, a problem with the heart's structure or blood flow, often indicated by low levels of oxygen in the blood. Prenatal screenings and clinical exams do not always detect the defect in newborns before they are discharged from hospitals.

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Dr. Lori Garg, medical director of newborn screening and genetics services with the New Jersey Department of Health and one of the study's authors, said early detection could help patients avoid further suffering.

"There are surgical repairs that can be done," Garg said. "It stands to reason that if a baby is detected before they become very sick, that they would do better."

In August 2011, New Jersey became the first state to require all licensed birthing facilities to screen newborns. Shortly afterward, the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services recommended all states follow suit.

At least 35 states have since passed or introduced legislation requiring screenings. The screening costs about $14 and is considered simple and noninvasive. It typically involves wrapping or clipping a monitor onto an infant's hand or foot and using infrared light waves to measure oxygen levels in the blood. Low levels may signal a critical congenital heart defect or other health problems, such as pneumonia or a lung condition.

"New Jersey's evaluation of the implementation of the first statewide screening program produced meaningful results and insights that will assist other states and programs as they embark on their own implementation and evaluations," state Health Commissioner Mary E. O'Dowd said in a statement.

Of the approximately 73,000 newborns eligible for screening in the first nine months after New Jersey's law went into effect, 99 percent were screened, according to the study.

The screenings identified three newborns whose critical congenital heart defects might otherwise have gone undiagnosed, and they helped to identify other conditions in infants. However, the report also noted 48 babies with defects who were reported to the New Jersey Birth Defects Registry weren't identified through the mandatory screening.

The authors of the study said the 48 infants either passed the screening, were not screened at all or failed the screening but did not have their results reported.

As a result of the study, the state Health Department is working on a new statewide electronic birth reporting system to collect individual data and is developing training programs for health care providers to ensure that all newborns are properly screened, a spokeswoman for the department said.

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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