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Bill requiring simple, non-invasive test at birth will save lives

Legislation sponsored by Assembly members Jason O’Donnell, Connie Wagner and Ruben Ramos, Jr. to protect the hearts of newborn babies advanced in both houses on Monday, gaining approval by the full Assembly and the Senate Health Committee.

The bill (A-3744), approved unanimously in the Assembly by a vote of 78 – 0, would require a simple, non-invasive and painless test at least 24 hours post-birth to identify Congenital Heart Disease (CHD) in newborns. With only several other states – Tennessee, Indiana, and Maryland – having similar measures pending, New Jersey could soon be the first state to pass such a measure.

“As this legislation has made its way through our house, we have heard many inspiring stories about how this procedure has saved lives, and also some heartbreaking tales of how it could have saved the life of a child,” said O’Donnell (D-Hudson), whose third child was born with CHD. “We have a mandatory check for hearing on newborns, yet we don’t have a mandatory check for life-threatening heart defects. This is just common sense. A simple test can save the lives of many infants, and save their families from unimaginable heartache.”

CHD is the most common birth defect in infants, with approximately one in 100 children born with some type of structural problem in the heart, most of which are not diagnosed prior to birth. Such structural problems impact the flow of blood through the heart, lungs, and brain.

Some types of CHD cause no or very few health problems for the infants, while others bring a significant risk of morbidity and mortality if not diagnosed soon after birth. Failing to detect critical CHD prior to letting the child go home can lead to life-threatening events including cardiogenic shock, and organ failure. There are some hospitals in New Jersey who require pulse ox screening for newborns, but it is not yet a statewide requirement.

“With the passage of this bill, New Jersey would lead the way in improving how we deal with newborn screenings in this day and age,” said Wagner (D-Bergen). “One test will not only protect newborns and parents, but also hospitals and doctors. I can think of no better present for any future parents than to know that we are putting into place a measure that will protect their child.”

The pulse oximetry, or “pulse ox,” is a simple, low-cost, non-invasive and painless test used to measure the percent of oxygen in the blood and whether a baby’s heart and lungs are healthy. The pulse ox is placed on the baby’s foot by a sticky strip, like a band-aid, and takes just a few minutes to perform. A low pulse oximetry reading would prompt a doctor or nurse practitioner to ask for more testing, such as a heart ultrasound or echocardiogram.

While the pulse oximetry test may not identify all CHD, it is a significant and sensible step toward early detection.

“Even one newborn saved through this test will make this bill worthwhile,” said Ramos (D-Hudson). “This is a simple, common-sense way to protect the lives of our children while also giving parents peace of mind.”

Pulse oximetry is currently used as the standard of care in some of the nation’s most advanced hospitals. Similar language has been proposed at the federal level and may be incorporated as a federal newborn standard of care.