Senate debates

Thursday, 21 June 2012


Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome

10:15 pm

Photo of Sue BoyceSue Boyce (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I support the comments made by Senator Urquhart. I appreciate that sometimes the adjournment debate can seem such a depressing time because we often speak about issues and problems that emerge. I note that Senator Urquhart, like me, is wearing a cornflower, which is the symbol of the Motor Neurone Disease Association worn globally today, on 21 June, and chosen because, whilst it is a fragile and attractive flower, it is also a really tough flower. People who experience cystic fibrosis, and many other disabilities and health conditions, such as motor neurone disease, are tough and do a dammed good job.

Tonight I wish to speak about sudden cardiac death in young people. Earlier this year I received an email from a Queensland mother, Lesley Keegan. In 2007, Leslie lost her son Nye, who died suddenly and unexpectedly. Not only was Nye's death a great loss for his family; it was a loss for the entire community. Nye was a very fit, athletic and healthy young man. He played soccer and was an avid spearfisherman. He died at the age of 22 from sudden cardiac arrest. Sudden cardiac death in young people is a condition that often strikes athletes and others while playing sport, and it has a devastating effect not just on that individual but on their whole family, their friends and their community. In parliament tonight, at the request of Nye's mother, I am raising the topic of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome in young people in an attempt to raise awareness about this issue. I will be doing what I can to raise awareness with Queensland sporting organisations and other organisations throughout Australia who might be able to help prevent sudden cardiac death in young people.

Sudden cardiac death in the young, which generally occurs within one hour of the start of cardiac related symptoms, affects relatively few young Australians under the age of 35. The figures are sketchy but it would appear that the number of deaths from this syndrome total between 200 and 1,000 young Australians every year. Mr President, you can appreciate the devastation that those 200 to 1,000 deaths of healthy and often very fit young people can bring to their families, their communities and their friends. It is estimated that in the UK there are about 500 deaths per year. One of the reasons we have such a broad range in Australia, between 200 and 1,000, is that the Australian Bureau of Statistics has been shown to misclassify deaths from sudden cardiac death syndrome as epilepsy, amongst other causes. So we are not even sure that we are classifying these deaths properly at present.

This dramatic or spontaneous death is thought to be caused by underlying heart conditions. Such conditions can include cardiomyopathies, which are abnormalities of the heart muscle, often inherited; congenital heart disease, including abnormalities of the structure of the heart which may have been present since birth but not caused a problem until a particular stress episode or inherited inflammation of the heart muscle; genetic connective tissue disorders; mitral valve prolapse; conduction disease; medication related causes; and other causes, such as fits mirroring epilepsy, or severe asthma attacks.

Most athletes who succumb to sudden cardiac death have no history of cardiac problems and no symptoms before the episode that causes their death. In effect, the first symptom of cardiac problems is their death. Detection of at-risk individuals poses a significant problem, but a significant proportion of at-risk athletes could be identified if there were a thorough physical examination and medical history taken of those people. In some cases there are symptoms but, because the people who are affected by cardiac risk syndrome are young and very fit, the symptoms are often overlooked or misinterpreted as something else. I urge all families of young people, especially athletes, to refer these young people to a doctor if there is a family history of unexpected or unexplained sudden death in a young person, if they have fainting or seizure during exercise or excitement or if they have a consistent or initial chest pain or shortness of breath during exercise. Mrs Keegan said that Nye displayed what, in retrospect, could have been seen as symptoms—a cough that would not go away and a pain in the chest that was put down to indigestion. But at the time he was fit and he was active, so no-one thought to check these out further. Dizziness and palpitations can also be symptoms of an underlying heart condition in the young.

So if an exceptionally fit young person complains of chest pains, before dismissing it as 'just indigestion' or something else, consider that it might be something more serious. Most cardiac arrhythmias and structural defects that cause sudden death in the young are treatable. However, they may mean that the young person can no longer be involved in very strenuous exercise or athletic training.

There are a number of tests that can be done, I am told by the people from CRY, Cardiac Risk in the Young. You can understand why parents might call an organisation designed to raise awareness of sudden death in young, fit people CRY. But I am also told by people involved in the CRY organisation that currently there is no systematic testing done by sporting bodies, such as the Australian Olympic Committee, the Australian Institute of Sport or Swimming Australia, of its athletes to see if any are at risk of sudden cardiac death.

I would like to quote one other parent, a woman called Jill Masurkan, whose son James was headed for a professional soccer career. She had never heard of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome until James died of it. She said:

Our kids don't make it to A league, they die before they get there …

There are dozens of parents in Australia who have been affected—and you can imagine how awfully—by this condition.

I would encourage all of us here to get involved in developing awareness of cardiac risk in the young. There will be an information session here on 10 September to discuss cardiac risk in the young and sudden arrhythmic death syndrome, to explain the risks and what can be done about it. I would encourage all MPs to attend so they can learn a little about a problem that is not common but that is so tragic—and preventable. Again, I encourage everyone to attend.

Senate adjourned at 22:25