Ultrasound scanners to diagnose heart defects in unborn babies

18 September 2018

We can now offer scans as early as 12 weeks into pregnancy to check for potential heart defects.

Rachel with her husband Ryan, and their children Erin and Michael
Rachel with her husband Ryan, and their children Erin and Michael

The hospital’s fetal cardiology unit has three high-definition ultrasound scanners to perform these ‘game-changing’ scans, and it’s thanks to your amazing fundraising and donations that this has been made possible.

Rachel’s story

Rachel Slaughter was 30 weeks pregnant with her first child Erin, now age 3, when she received the frightening diagnosis that she had Ebstein’s anomaly — a congenital heart defect causing Rachel to have a faulty valve — and a hole in the heart.

10 months after Erin was born, 38-year-old Rachel had open-heart surgery to fix the hole in her heart. She was told that she would need scans during any future pregnancies to see if the baby had inherited her condition.

When Rachel discovered she was pregnant again in December 2017, she wasn’t expecting the scan to be available until at least 20 weeks of pregnancy. But thanks to the new scanners at Evelina London, she was able to have one at just 15 weeks.

‘I thought I would only find out later in the pregnancy so it was reassuring to have a scan earlier on,’ says Rachel. ‘The sonographer couldn’t see anything of concern and I had further scans at 20 and 30 weeks which confirmed that the baby’s heart was working well.

‘It was a huge relief to hear that the baby’s heart looked normal at 15 weeks. I had been feeling anxious about it since finding out I was pregnant, so it was great that I could have early reassurance and remove that worry so I could enjoy the pregnancy.’

Rachel gave birth to a baby boy, Michael, on 23 July 2018.

Reassurance during high-risk pregnancies

The three SMI (Superb Microvascular Imaging) ultrasound systems based in Evelina London’s new fetal cardiology unit can provide higher quality and more detailed images than ever before.

This means that heart defects can be detected as early as 12 weeks into a pregnancy, instead of when they are usually diagnosed at the 20-week scan. The state-of-the-art scanners give experts a clear view of an unborn baby’s heart and blood vessels and detect the movement of blood within the heart.

Early detection opens up the possibility of corrective surgery while the baby is still in the womb, or offers an earlier opportunity for the parents to make vital decisions about the pregnancy.

The fetal cardiology teams at Evelina London and King’s College Hospital work in partnership to carry out around 1,000 scans a year. The combined team is the first in the UK to use this technique to detect heart problems early, a practice which is particularly important for pregnant women with a history of heart problems or with elder children who are affected, or where potential problems are spotted during their routine 12-week scan.

‘This technique provides enhanced early diagnosis of a heart problem in an unborn baby or confirmation that nothing is wrong, which is hugely reassuring for parents with a high-risk pregnancy,’ explains John Simpson, professor of paediatric and fetal cardiology. ‘The new ultrasound scanning technology is a game-changer for babies diagnosed with heart defects. An earlier diagnosis gives us much more time to plan care, to prepare parents for what is ahead and provide them with specialist support.’

You can make a difference today