Fetal echocardiograms give early detection of baby heart abnormalities

Reporter: Amy Oshier

A multi-million dollar research grant is making its way to 14 hospitals, including one in Florida, to study the outcomes of adults who were born with a heart defect.

That population is rising due to early detection, and oftentimes these defects are discovered before the baby is born.

At Golisano Children’s Hospital, they are caring for tiny hearts before a baby is born by reading heart rhythm and function.

Manu Sharma is with cardiovascular services at Golisano Children’s Hospital. While looking at imaging, he said, “So this is the baby’s liver. And we’re looking from the stomach, it’s called the subcostal view. And the color is actually blood flow.”

The detailed view he describes comes from a fetal echocardiogram. It’s one of the tools that provide an inside look.

By around 22 weeks, the heart is developed enough to evaluate, roughly the size of a walnut.

“The technology is amazing,” explained Pediatric Cardiologist Dr. Eric Eason. “Now we have cardiac MRIs that give just beautiful images. You can see every piece of the heart, the valves, the defects, there are things like 4D flow, where you can actually calculate how much flow is going through each vessel. That’s huge because that can save you a cath lab procedure. The echo imaging that we have here is outstanding.”

Eason says finding an abnormality is critically important. About 1% of babies born in the U.S. arrive into the world with a congenital heart defect. The March of Dimes equates that to 1 in every 100 births.

“About 50% of defects can be detected prenatally with a fetal echocardiogram,” Eason added. “And that that’s just huge for the families because you have that time to absorb the information, process and then plan for a safe delivery,”

Knowing beforehand, greatly improves outcomes. If needed, some repairs are even done in utero, and others, shortly after birth.

In previous decades, heart defects often went undetected and babies just went home, resulting sometimes in death. As technology advances, it’s now more of a rarity.

Eason said, “As treatments have improved, we are seeing more and more adults with congenital heart disease.”

Living normal lives, despite being born with a broken heart.

The latest figures show that more adults are alive despite being born with a heart defect, than babies being born with one.

The most common abnormality is a hole between the upper or lower chambers of the heart.

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