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Local pediatrician: testing key to heart disease awareness

Each year, one in 125 babies will be born with congenital heart disease, one of the nation’s most common birth defects that leads to the most birth defect related deaths.

According to Nola Ernest, pediatrician at SARAH in Troy, the easiest way to prevent congenital heart disease is to be educated in the prenatal screening options available to expecting parents.

“I think really what parents should be aware of is that they should request screening, prenatally,” Ernest said. “Parents should also ask questions like what was my baby’s heart rate, did you see any holes in my baby’s heart and how many chambers were you able to see on the ultrasound.”

Ernest explained that prenatal testing for congenital heart disease often involved observing oxygen saturation in the blood.

“If the levels are low, then that would trigger further testing to look for a congenital heart disease,” Ernest said. “Regular testing is not in every state, but it’s something that is pushed for in every state. In Alabama, it’s part of routine newborn screenings.”

However, Ernest said that low oxygen saturations was not always congenital heart disease’s tell especially if it was simply a mild case of the defect.

“Most of the things that will hurt you right after birth will be low, but if you have a hole in your heart or a problem with a valve, there might not be a low oxygen saturation,” Ernest said. “That is why regular well-check visits with your pediatrician are so important. At every well child visit, one of the things pediatricians will do is listen to you heart to check for issues with your child’s heart.”

Ernest said in most cases the cause for the defect is unknown, but there is a wildly accepted assumption that factors include both genetic and environmental.

“Historically, there have been some medications that we know make heart disease more likely,” Ernest said. “And we also know that certain conditions like gestational diabetes also makes heart disease more likely in the newborn.”

While parents cannot control genetic factors, Ernest said they could be sure to request the proper prenatal screenings and ask questions about any medication you are taking during pregnancy.

“And, always be sure to follow up with any routine testing, especially for diabetes,” Ernest said. “And, take care of yourself, eat good food.”