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The equipment is there... but we don't have staff to run the tests

SPECIALIST heart equipment that could test young athletes for risk of sudden adult death syndrome is lying idle because there isn't the money to hire staff.

As many as 80 people under the age of 35 die from sudden cardiac death (SCD) in Ireland every year, mostly due to inherited heart disease or birth defects that they knew nothing about.

More than 10,000 people in Ireland are thought to carry genes for inherited heart disease -- but most will never find out unless an illness or more serious tragedy occurs. However, the Herald can reveal that while there is a will among doctors to screen all young people there is little or no funding.

A senior doctor said there was "a huge waste" of the equipment available.

This is leaving young athletes at risk of heart incidents similar to that which struck down Bolton football Fabrice Muamba last weekend.

Dr Deirdre Ward of the Centre for Cardiovascular Risk in Younger Persons (CRY) told the Herald that when she started work at the facility in Tallaght Hospital the aim was reach a state where they could offer full screening to sports teams.

Years later the staff find themselves fighting a backlog of patients. They see 1,400 young people each year -- but this figure could be more than doubled if they had more than four staff.

"I used to think when we set up that we would have nobody left to see who had a family history. The hope was that we would go on to offer sports screening and if we charged a nominal fee we could put that money back into the centre for families," Dr Ward explained. "With the equipment we have could probably see around 3,000 people per year but it's just the people that we need to run it.

"Obviously if you've only got four staff you're only running the equipment for about 35 hours a week which is a huge waste of the equipment you have."

The equipment costs in the region of €350,000 but the HSE supplies little or no funding for cardiologists or cardiac technicians.

According to Dr Ward the treatments for most heart conditions are reasonably simple if the problem can be spotted in time. However, every day in Ireland young GAA, soccer and rugby players are unwittingly putting themselves in harm's way by taking part in very physical exercise.

"It's often unfortunate in these conditions that we have to tell reasonably fit, sporty people that they should ease off sporting activities," said Dr Ward.

"If you do have one of these conditions having involvement in intensive sport can double your risk of dying."