VIENNA (Reuters) - Leading cardiologists called on Sunday for routine heart checks on all competitive athletes to identify those with heart problems, following a spate of sudden deaths among soccer players.
Domenico Corrado of the University of Padua Medical School said the experience of Italy, the only country where screening is mandatory, showed checks were cost-effective and could reduce dramatically the risk of young people dying on the pitch.
Strenuous sports activity can kill some apparently very fit young people if they have congenital or other heart problems.
“It is not the sport in itself that is the cause of this increased mortality. Rather, it acts as a trigger for ventricular arrhythmias in those athletes that are affected by underlying cardiovascular diseases,” Corrado said.
World soccer’s governing body FIFA said last week it was ready to consider expanding its medical screening programs to cover all international tournaments, following the death of Spain and Sevilla midfielder Antonio Puerta, 22.
One day after Puerta’s death last week, Zambian striker Chaswe Nsofwa died after collapsing during a training session with his Israeli second division side Hapoel Beer Sheva.
In England, a 16-year-old trainee at third-division Walsall died last month after suffering a similar collapse in training.
There are no global statistics for the number of sudden cardiac failures among footballers, although for sport in general there are an estimated 1,000 deaths a year from such cases.
Corrado presented data at the annual European Society of Cardiology congress showing that the rate of sudden cardiac deaths among young athletes in the Veneto region had plunged 89 percent to 0.4 cases per 100,000 since testing became compulsory in 1981.
The Italian screening program includes an electrocardiogram (ECG) test, as well as checks on the individual’s personal and family history, all of which costs between 50 and 60 euros ($68-82).
Some experts have questioned the cost-effectiveness of such across-the-board tests but Corrado said that in Italy it worked out at 25,000 euros per life saved -- better value than many other widely accepted medical interventions.
Gordon Tomaselli, professor of medicine at John Hopkins University, agreed that screening should be routine for competitive athletes but said ECG tests were imperfect and would not reveal heart weaknesses in all people.
It was also possible that screening might not show such dramatic benefits in other countries as in Italy, where a certain proportion of the population had a well-known genetic risk of heart problems, he said.
Viviane Conraads, a cardiologist at the University Hospital Antwerp in Belgium, said tragic cases of rare sudden deaths in young athletes should not detract from the huge heart benefits of exercise for the vast majority of people.
“There is no evidence whatsoever that healthy people will collapse during a football match,” she said.
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