DUBAI // Every child in Dubai will be screened for a heart condition that is often undiagnosed and can result in sudden death.
School pupils will be checked for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the main cause of fatal heart attacks in young athletes.
High-profile victims linked to the condition include the UAE international footballer Salem Saad, 31, who collapsed and died at a training session in 2009, and Fabrice Muamba, 23, the Bolton midfielder who suffered a heart attack on the pitch during a match in London in March.
"There is a big push internationally to screen children in school," said Dr Shahraban Abdulla, a paediatric cardiology consultant at Latifa Hospital.
"Those who die suddenly while they are doing some kind of physical exercise, there is a possibility that they had this hypertrophy."
Dr Abdulla added: "It is congenital sometimes, and sometimes it develops."
The screening programme is the latest fruit of a partnership between Dubai Health Authority and the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Humanitarian and Charity Establishment. The two began collaborating in 2007 to fly specialist surgeons to Dubai to perform lifesaving heart surgery on children. Since then 250 lives have been saved.
The partners announced yesterday they would be branding themselves Nabadat (Arabic for pulses) and will expand their scope to include an early screening programme in public and private schools for signs of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
The condition causes the walls of the ventricles, the heart chambers that pump blood to the rest of the body, to thicken.
"There are some heart defects that do not show any symptoms," said Dr Abdulla, a member of the Nabadat team. "So we need to screen children to find out if they have some kind of hypertrophy of the heart."
Similar programmes in other countries target children aged 12 to 18, of whom there are about 180,000 in Dubai.
A heart check-up usually consists of a consultation on medical history, a physical exam including a blood-pressure check, an electrocardiogram and a further echocardiogram if there are any early warning signs. A similar consultation in a private hospital would cost up to Dh3,500.
Worldwide, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy occurs in between 0.2 and 0.5 per cent of the population. There are no statistics for the UAE, but the team will start collecting data as it rolls out the programme to Dubai pupils.
Nabadat also announced yesterday that it will begin organising surgeon tours to help child cardiac patients in other countries.
"For the past five years this work has been so successful that people have come here, so we've had children from other countries, not only those who are living in the UAE. And we have had children from all the emirates," said Dr Abdulla.
It has not yet been decided which countries will benefit from the expansion of the surgery programme. However, the focus is likely to be on those that have the necessary medical infrastructure to host specialist surgeons, such as Egypt and Iran.
Children from all backgrounds and cultures have benefited from surgery organised by Nabadat. So far this year 55 per cent of the families have been Emirati and the rest expatriate. Most of those helped are younger than six months.
Another team member, Dr Obaid Aljassim, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Dubai Hospital, said: "Under the Nabadat umbrella we are going to expand our activities in Dubai and outside Dubai. We are going to expand in that we would like to reach every child who needs care, in the UAE first and then outside the UAE."
Each year up to 100 youngsters in Dubai require heart surgery, and worldwide 1 per cent of children are born with a congenital heart disease.
"We get a lot of requests from outside the UAE to treat children with congenital heart disease," said Dr Aljassim. "They would like to come here, but there are problems bringing them here - from their side and our side. There are a lot of logistics to be arranged. Children sometimes find it difficult to come here for treatment, so now we are going to them."
As well as carrying out surgery, the visiting experts also participate in workshops designed to increase the expertise of local medical staff.
"At first we had surgeons from Sweden and now they come from Italy," said Dr Abdulla. "They come three times a year and we all work together in workshops at Dubai Hospital.
"It is not one discipline; this is the beauty of it. There are surgeons, paediatricians, cardiologists, anaesthetists, nurses, technicians. We work together and we gain knowledge."