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High School Athletes Offered Free Screening for Risk of Dangerous Heart Abnormalities - 05/20/2009

High School Athletes Offered Free Screening for Risk of Dangerous Heart Abnormalities

"Heart Hype" event staffed by Johns Hopkins heart disease experts to kick-off second annual state campaign
Release Date: May 20, 2009

May 20, 2009- For the second year in a row, volunteer heart disease experts from Johns Hopkins will staff and run Maryland’s only screening program to detect early signs of life-threatening heart abnormalities, including hypertrophic cardiomyopathies, in student athletes.

The single-day event, known as the “Heart Hype” program, will take place Saturday, May 23, at Morgan State University in Baltimore, and coincides with 2009 track and field championship games of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. The event usually attracts over 1,000 competitors. A team of 70 Johns Hopkins cardiologists, fellows, nurses, medical technicians and administrators, along with community volunteers will offer for free a series of heart tests from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Morgan State’s Turner Ballroom. High school athletes are encouraged but not required to get screened. The screening program, which last year tested 250 student athletes, was designed to raise awareness as well as prevent deaths from sudden cardiac arrest due to the physical strains of athletic competition among those at high risk. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that sudden cardiac death from heart abnormalities is the leading cause of death among young people, causing more than 3,000 deaths each year.

According to Theodore Abraham, M.D., the Johns Hopkins cardiologist spearheading the campaign, athletes who have inherited tendencies to develop overly enlarged and thickened hearts have a heightened risk of sudden, potentially fatal heart rhythm disturbances. Healthy appearance and top physical condition, he says, can hide the warning signs, letting many cases go undiagnosed.

The student checkup includes a basic questionnaire to review any past history of chest pain, shortness of breath, fainting spells, or instances of sudden cardiac death in relatives. Tests include measurements of weight and blood pressure, and an examination for unusual heartbeats or murmurs. Each athlete will receive a cardiac ultrasound, or echocardiogram, to measure heart size and its pumping function and to check for faulty heart valves. An electrocardiogram, or EKG, to assess the heart’s electrical rhythms will also be given.

Test results will be reported to each athlete on site, along with recommended follow-up if problems are detected.

“By promoting this campaign in Maryland, we hope to encourage other heart-minded organizations across the state and nation to begin their own programs,” says Abraham, whose goal is to make such testing a routine part of sports eligibility criteria for schools. Other countries, such as Italy and Japan, have since the early 1980s run regular school programs to screen teenage athletes and non-athletes for possible heart problems. Indeed, Abraham notes, health officials in one region of Italy reported that screening had saved at least 22 lives. And in 2004, the International Olympic Committee recommended that all athletes be EKG-tested every two years for potential heart abnormalities.

Experts estimate that one in 500 Americans has undiagnosed hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, with African-Americans representing in some studies as much as 45 percent of all instances of sudden cardiac death compared to non African-Americans.

Of those 250 athletes screened at last year’s event, 92 showed some type of abnormality that warranted follow-up. A more detailed follow-up was recommended for 18 athletes, but none displayed serious heart abnormalities. Heart experts say this does not preclude athletes from developing a serious problem as they age, and those sent for in-depth screening need to be closely monitored and possibly retested in two years.

“Our goal this year is to screen an even larger number of athletes than last year,” says Abraham, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and its Heart and Vascular Institute. “The more we can educate young adults about the risk of sudden cardiac death, the more we can prevent young athletes from dying unnecessarily.”

More than 110,000 high school students in Maryland are active in competitive sports, notes Abraham.

This year’s event sponsor is Philips Healthcare, based in Andover, Mass. Philips is providing the 20 ultrasound machines and 15 electrocardiographs for EKG screening, plus supplies, needed for the event. The use of Philips equipment for this event does not constitute or imply endorsement by Johns Hopkins of Philips products or services.

In addition to The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Philips Healthcare, other co-sponsors of this event are Morgan State University, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, the National Football Foundation, the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association, Friends in Red, and the Chad Foundation.

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