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A simple, pain-free test that could significantly increase the detection rate of life-threatening heart defects should be used on all new-born babies, experts have said.

Pulse oximeters, which measure blood oxygen levels, have a 92 percent detection rate of heart faults when combined with other traditional baby checks, a clinical trial has shown.

A small sensor is placed on the hand and foot of the baby to check their blood oxygen levels, with those with low levels being sent for heart ultrasound treatment.

The trial took place over the course of a year in six UK maternity units and tested more than 20,000 supposedly healthy babies, detecting 75 percent of critical cases and 49 percent of all major congenital heart defects.

Pulse oximetry was then combined with ultrasound checks and a physical examination, which led to a 92 percent detection rate and an eradication of death from undiagnosed heart disease.

Dr Andrew Ewer, from Birmingham University, said: "We would like to see all babies being routinely tested. In this way the test will pick up additional babies who might otherwise have become very ill or even died."

Of the 53 cases of major congenital heart disease that were detected during the trial, 18 were detected by pulse oximetry that had been missed by ultrasound.

5,000 babies are born with heart defects in the UK every year. They are one of the leading causes of infant deaths in the developed world.

Pulse oximeters have been trialled in relation to heart defect detection before but only on small samples. The latest results are currently being assessed by the NHS and may result in the routine use of pulse oximeters on all new born babies.

At one of the trial hospitals, the results were so good that Doctors continue to use the method, even though the trial has ended.

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