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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 February, 2005, 00:17 GMT
Call to check athletes' hearts
Marc Vivien-Foe
Marc Vivien-Foe died suddenly while playing for his country
European heart experts are calling for all young athletes to be screened for potentially fatal heart problems before they compete.

Footballer Marc-Vivien Foe and Daniel Yorath, son of former Wales manager Terry, both died of previously undetected heart conditions.

The report by European Society of Cardiology experts is published in the European Heart Journal.

But UK heart experts said such a scheme would be extremely expensive.

To identify these rare cases you'd have to screen a large number of individuals at great cost to the health service
Professor Peter Weissberg, Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation
The study suggested every young athlete involved in organised sport should have a detailed health check, which includes an analysis of their own and their family's medical history - and an electrocardiogram (ECG) to check their heart.

They suggest that implementing such checks across Europe could reduce sports-related cardiac deaths in Europe by 50-70%.

There is little information about the number of young athletes who die from sports-related sudden cardiac death, but an Italian study suggested they occur in two out of 100,000 athletes a year.

Sporting activity does not directly cause such deaths, but it can trigger cardiac arrest in athletes who have underlying "silent" disease, such as cardiomyopathies - diseases of the heart muscle, premature coronary artery disease and congenital coronary anomalies.

'100% backing'

The researchers said there was evidence that screening all competitive athletes did identify those at risk.

They highlighted an Italian study by the Center for Sports Medicine of Padova involving nearly 34,000 athletes under 35, in which 1,000 were disqualified from competing on health grounds - 621 of them because tests revealed relevant cardiovascular abnormalities.

The European researchers recommended screening should start around the age of 12 to 14 and be repeated at least every two years.

Dr Domenico Corrado, of the Departments of Cardiology and Pathology at the University of Padova, Italy, one of the lead researchers on the study, 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."

Alison Cox, chief executive of the charity Cardiac Risk in the Young, said she backed the researchers' proposals "100%".

She said there were programmes to screen elite athletes in some sports in the UK. All elite tennis players undergo heart checks, and the Olympic Medical Association also carries out checks on people who display warning symptoms, such as a fainting regularly.

'Great cost'

Miss Cox said she understood the Football Association also carried out heart health checks.

But she said she hoped the UK would one day follow the Italian model, and screen all competitive athletes.

"This is what we've always asked for. But testing the elite athletes is probably the first practical application in the UK."

Professor Peter Weissberg, Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation, said: "Screening young athletes may occasionally pick up a few individuals at risk of sudden death.

"However, to identify these rare cases you'd have to screen a large number of individuals at great cost to the health service.

"We are concerned that many of the rare abnormal ECG readings would not be simple to interpret and we would be unable to predict the effect on a person's heart health.

"Such results may not mean sudden death but may well stop a promising athletic career."

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