Copyright 2005 The Press Association Limited
Press Association

February 2, 2005, Wednesday


LENGTH: 696 words


BYLINE: Lyndsay Moss, PA Health Correspondent


A Europe-wide heart screening programme should be introduced to prevent
sudden deaths among young athletes in competitive sports, experts said today.

Doctors working in international heart and sports medicine said screening
could pick up potentially life-threatening problems which put young sportsmen
and women at risk, and reduce the numbers collapsing and dying.

It follows a number of high-profile sudden deaths among athletes from
conditions including hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), which causes an
excessive thickening of the heart muscle.

Victims of the condition include Marc-Vivien Foe, the Premiership footballer
and Cameroon international, who died aged 28, and Daniel Yorath, the son of
former Wales football manager Terry Yorath, aged just 15.

Now researchers, writing in the European Heart Journal, say that screening
athletes using an electrocardiogram (ECG) could cut sports-related cardiac
deaths in Europe by up to 70% if every country took part.

An ECG is used to measure the electrical activity of the heart and can pick
up problems which would otherwise have no symptoms.

The European Society of Cardiology consensus report, published today,
recommended that every young athlete involved in organised sport should have a
rigorous physical examination, a detailed investigation of their personal and
family medical history and, most importantly, an ECG.

There are no estimates on the number of sports-related sudden cardiac deaths
in Europe, apart from in Italy where they are said to occur in about two per
100,000 athletes a year.

Dr Domenico Corrado, from the University of Padova in Italy, said: "We know
very little about the risk of sudden death associated with exercise in young
competitors, so the benefits versus the hazards of sports activity pose a
clinical dilemma.

"However, we know from a study in the Veneto region of Italy that adolescents
and young adults involved in competitive sport had a two and a half times higher
risk of sudden death.

"The young competitors who died suddenly were affected by silent
cardiovascular diseases, predominantly cardiomyopathies, premature coronary
artery disease and congenital coronary anomalies."

Exercise can trigger cardiac arrest in athletes with diseases, of which they
may be unaware, which predispose them to life-threatening heart problems.

Italy has operated a screening programme for athletes for 25 years, involving
nearly six million young people a year and using ECG tests.

One 17-year study involving 34,000 athletes under 35 found that more than
1,000 were disqualified from competing on health grounds - 621 because of
cardiovascular abnormalities.

Dr Corrado said a number of conditions which were now being picked up by ECG
had only recently been discovered so diagnosis was increasing.

He said it was harder to detect premature hardening of the coronary arteries
or abnormalities of the coronary artery using ECG.

But he said this team had found about a quarter of young athletes who died
from coronary artery disease had displayed warning signs or ECG abnormalities
during screening that could raise suspicions on cardiac disease.

The consensus group said that screening should start at around the age of 12
to 14 and repeated at least every two years, with specially trained medics
carrying out the tests.

Those who tested positive for potential heart problems should have more
extensive tests and if the problem was confirmed should be banned from
competition and training.

"From all the evidence that we have from 25 years' experience in Italy, we
can state unequivocally that screening is warranted," Dr Corrado said.

"It is ethically and clinically justifiable to make every effort to recognise
in good time the diseases that put these athletes at risk, and to reduce

Dr Corrado said that screening with ECG was feasible because of the limited
cost, which would usually be covered by the athlete or their sports team.

"Although the protocol is at present difficult to implement in all European
countries, we hope that the successful Italian experience will lead to its
widespread adoption under European regulations," he added.

LOAD-DATE: February 2, 2005