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February is observed as the Congenital Heart Defect month to promote awareness around the most common type of birth defect. With the incidence of 1 per 100 babies, every year approximately 240,000 newborns are born in India with such heart defects. Congenital heart defects are structural defects, which occur during the formation of the heart before birth. They may occur in various forms, from simple defects such as ‘holes in the heart to complex ones such as obstructed valves and absence of arteries.
Children born with these defects can have various symptoms depending on the severity of the defect. Smaller holes may go unnoticed until adulthood, while others may have breathlessness, bluishness, inadequate weight gain or fast heart beats. The crux lies in early detection, as nearly 70 percent of these heart defects can be corrected with the help of a single surgery or non-invasive angiographic procedures. Most of these children can have a normal lifespan, while being under regular medical follow-up with a pediatric cardiologist.
Advancement in science has allowed doctors to identify the presence of these defects in an unborn child, while the baby is still in the mother’s womb, with the help of sonography called fetal echocardiography. It allows doctors and parents to prepare and plan well in advance before the delivery. Tremendous progress in surgical techniques makes it possible for even a ‘few hours old’ baby to successfully undergo complex surgeries with precision.
These children get a chance to live a normal childhood, with some excelling in the field of sports and education. Approximately 30% of the complex defects, may however, require surgical procedures more than once in the child’s lifetime.
Care of such a child requires a coordinated team effort by experienced pediatric cardiologists, pediatric cardiac surgeons, anesthetists and intensive care doctors. The cost of care may impose financial burden to a young couple, especially since most of the medical insurance companies exclude all congenital heart defects from its ambit.
The government has also recently developed schemes to recognize this issue, and provides free of cost cardiac care for children in chosen private hospitals. This, however, does not meet the demands. Many more centres are required to cater to the vast number of such children in our country.