What's congenital heart disease?

What's the science behind this condition?
20 February 2018





What is congential heart disease?


Chris Smith got the the heart of the answer to this question from Bhavesh...

Chris - So congenital heart disease is what we want to talk about. The bottom line is that these are the commonest types of congenital abnormality. I think about 1 in 200 births is affected by some kind of structural problem in the heart, and the reason this happens is because the heart is complicated and it starts to form very early on during development. A huge number of genes from your whole genome are involved in putting the heart together in the first place and, for that reason, there are a lot of things that can go wrong and so, therefore, if you have a lot of chances for things to go wrong, occasionally things do.

Some of these disorders are absolutely harmless to you and many many people don’t even know that they have a congenital abnormality with their heart. In other words, they’ve got something which is not absolutely perfect, but because the body is so adaptable it can compensate.

In other cases though, these things can be devastating. Luckily, people are getting better at diagnosing them and they’re getting better at fixing them. Diagnosing them: we can tell if there’s a family history, you might be more at risk. People also undergo studies during pregnancy - they have ultrasound scans which are non-invasive and harmless, but can pick up problems very early on in pregnancy. This means that you can be forewarned that something might need to be done for that child when it’s born so specialist teams can be on hand to make sure nothing goes wrong during the birth of the baby. Then specialist cardiac and paediatric surgeons can come in and they can actually do a lot to fix these things.

Sometimes it’s because the blood vessels are connected up to the heart the wrong way round. Other times it’s because walls that divide the chambers of the heart don’t form properly and blood can flow where it shouldn’t. These things manifest when the baby is born because when you're inside your mum, you don’t need half of the heart working because the blood is not being pumped around your lungs, it’s just being pumped around your body and so, therefore, you only find out you’ve got this problem once you’re born.

Luckily, a lot of these things can be fixed and, also, scientists are now working out the genetics of these disorders so they can screen for who might be at risk and then we can find out either how to prevent the problem occuring in the first place, or fix it afterwards.


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