Local health experts want the nationally recognized Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week to get more public exposure.
Congenital heart defects are actually the most common type of birth defect and can be mild to extremely severe, Dr. Ayaz Rahman, Parkwest Medical Center Structural Heart and Valve Program co-director, said.
“It can affect the structure of a baby’s heart and the way that a baby’s heart works,” Rahman said. “The way in which it affects the baby’s heart is it can affect the way blood flows through the heart and out to the rest of the body. Congenital heart defects can be mild, such as a small hole in the heart or between structures of the heart, or it can be something more severe, such as a missing portion of the heart or a malformed part of the heart.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40,000 babies born each year have a congenital heart defect. One in four is affected critically and generally needs surgery or other procedures in the first year of life.
As the most common type of defect, the diagnosis is typically at birth, but mild defects can sometimes appear in adulthood.
Rahman said the more severe a defect, the more likely it is to be diagnosed early in life.
Monitoring people born with defects is important, even if they have been repaired, because they can affect other parts of the body like the brain, lungs and gastrointestinal systems, he said.
Dr. Bud Guider, retired pediatrician from Loudon Pediatric Clinic, said there are several factors that cause congenital heart defects, including genetic situations such as Down syndrome and environmental causes.
“Environmental causes could be things like mothers that smoke during pregnancy, drink alcohol during pregnancy,” Guider said. “There’s definitely a connection between both of those and congenital heart defects. Certain medications that mothers may be on are sometimes causative of congenital heart defects. The other one is kind of maternal health. Moms who have diabetes. Moms who are severely obese. They’re more likely to have a child with a congenital heart defect than mothers who don’t have physical, medical problems.”
Babies born with congenital heart defects typically have other issues that can manifest as a physical medical problem, developmental problem or cognitive delay, Guider said.
Dr. Moez Premji, Covenant Health internal medicine specialist with a practice in Lenoir City, said schools and employers should be more conscientious about heart defects.
He thinks the public should be more aware of defects and keep items like defibrillators on hand in restaurants and stores with staff trained in how to use the devices.
“I think physical education teachers, sports directors need to know that there are going to be kids in their classes who have had heart defects as kids and prepared because they are not going to be able to perform to the level of the other children,” Premji said. “They don’t need to push them. Perhaps knowledge of if the kid has had congenital heart disease as a baby — I guess middle school or high school where they are playing sports they would need to know that, so they’re not pushed into areas where they might hurt themselves.
“I don’t think any of the forms I’ve ever filled out have asked about congenital heart diseases,” he added. “I think that’s where I’d educate a lot of people.”
Premji said people with heart defects may be on “heavy duty” blood thinners. Others with defect repairs may get “electrical short circuits” and need to be revived with a defibrillator.
He suggested educators and employers should know if someone is on a blood thinner so they will not be placed in a life-threatening situation.
“I think the availability of defibrillators in schools should be there now,” Premji said. “… They probably need a defibrillator as much as they need fire extinguishers. Then even in employment areas. Areas that employ more than say 50 employees. If they have people that they’re employing that have congenital heart disease repairs, I think having a defibrillator in the building is a good idea — especially factories that make boats and car parts and stuff where people are pulling eight- and 12-hour shifts. It might be a little more than a repaired heart can do.”