Congenital heart defects are a major congenital abnormality and are assuming increasing importance. A study was undertaken to estimate the incidence of congenital heart defects in Northern Ireland over a five year period (1974-1978), to determine the age at diagnosis and to assess the risk of recurrence in sibs. An incidence rate of 7.3 per 1000 total births was found. This reduced to 3.1 per 1000 total births if only invasive methods of diagnosis (catheter studies, surgery, or necropsy) were considered. The overall risk of recurrence for sibs (excluding index patients with chromosomal abnormalities and syndromes) was 3.1%. In addition, excluding families with an affected parent and child gave a recurrence risk of 2.6%. By 6 weeks of age 63% of index patients had been diagnosed and this figure had risen to 88% by 1 year. This has important implications for studies which include only congenital heart defects diagnosed in the first year of life. Of 388 patients with a congenital heart defect confirmed by invasive criteria, 96 (24.7%) were found to have an extracardiac abnormality (ECA). Excluding those with epilepsy or mental handicap as the sole ECA left 91 (23.5%) with an ECA. This highlights the importance of looking for other abnormalities in a child with a congenital heart defect. The 388 index patients had 952 sibs of whom 72 (7.6%) had an ECA. Excluding those with minor abnormalities (inguinal hernias, undescended testes) as the sole ECA left 62 (6.5%) with a major ECA. In addition, excluding those with epilepsy or mental handicap as the sole ECA left 51 (5.4%) with a major ECA. Since parents are often reassured after the birth of a child with a congenital heart defect that their risk of having a child with a noncardiac abnormality is no greater than the general population this finding has important implications for genetic counselling.
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