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Beating the Odds: Heart Defects for 1 in 100 MN Babies

PHOTO: Advocates say the Pulse Oximetry test is simple, inexpensive and will save lives if included as part of the state's mandatory newborn screenings. Courtesy AHA Minnesota
PHOTO: Advocates say the Pulse Oximetry test is simple, inexpensive and will save lives if included as part of the state's mandatory newborn screenings. Courtesy AHA Minnesota
February 7, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. - For every 100 babies born in Minnesota, one has a congenital heart defect. Advocates are seeking to catch such problems before babies are sent home from the hospital.

A bill carried by state Rep. Patti Fritz, D-Faribault, and supported across the aisle by Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, aims to add a Pulse Oximetry test to the panel of mandatory newborn screenings.

"You place two sensors, one on the hand and one on the foot, and it measures the oxygen level in the blood in the newborn baby," Zerwas said, "and that helps detect congenital birth defects."

The "Pulse Ox" screening is simple, inexpensive and can save lives, he said. The push hits especially close to home for Zerwas, who was born with a three-chambered heart.

"My heart defect wasn't detected until I was three days old and being discharged from the hospital," Zerwas said. "They were able to take some measures to keep me alive, and I've had 10 open-heart surgeries, but every year many, many babies don't have their heart defects detected early on."

This is Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week in Minnesota, as proclaimed by Gov. Mark Dayton. Among the scheduled activities is "Heart Day on the Hill" next Tuesday, where Justin Bell, American Heart Association government relations director, said people can see how the "Pulse Ox" screening is done.

"We're going to have a newborn nurse and a newborn cardiologist do some tests on a newborn to show how simple and easy it is," he said. "We're going to have survivors there, and we're also going to have the commissioner of health at the event. She's going to raise more awareness about the issue, and the bill itself."

While not a lot is known about the actual causes, experts say women can help prevent some birth defects by quitting smoking, avoiding all alcohol and illegal drugs and by taking folic acid every day.

Birth defects are the leading cause of infant deaths in the United States. It's estimated that more than 2,000 babies are born with birth defects in Minnesota each year.

More information on preventing birth defects is online at health.state.mn.us.

John Michaelson, Public News Service - MN