Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week

February 7 – 14, 2009


Congenital Heart Defects Awareness Week is a grassroots effort to make the public aware that congenital heart disease is the most common major birth defect. Congenital heart disease affects the structure of the heart – the heart muscle itself or the blood vessels bringing blood to the heart or taking blood away.


Basic Anatomy of the Heart


The hearts is a muscle that is responsible for

  • Receiving oxygen-poor blood from the body.
  • Sending the oxygen-poor blood to the lungs to receive oxygen.
  • Receiving the oxygen-rich blood from the lungs.
  • Sending the oxygen-rich blood to the body.


The heart has four chambers, two on top and two on the bottom. The right upper chamber (right atrium,) receives oxygen-poor blood from the body. The right lower chamber (right ventricle) sends that blood to the lungs. The left upper chamber (left atrium) receives the oxygen-rich blood from the lungs. The left lower chamber (left atrium) sends that blood to the body.


The blood goes from the atria (plural of atrium) to the ventricles and from the ventricles to either the lungs or the body via one-way valves.


Two common types of congenital heart defects are:


Septal Defects:

  • Atrial septal defect (ASD) – an opening or “hole” in the heart between the upper two chambers, the right and left atria.
  • Ventricular septal defect VSD) – an opening or “hole” between the lower two chambers, the right and left ventricles.


Because of the differences in pressure between the right and left sides of the heart, septal defects result in oxygen-rich blood being needlessly sent back to the lungs. As a result, not enough oxygen-poor blood gets to the lungs to receive oxygen. In the case of VSD, the left ventricle tries to compensate and has to work extra hard to pump the blood. This may cause heart failure or poor growth of the baby.


Some septal defects are very small and don’t require repair. Larger ones need repair. ASDs are often repaired by way of a tube sent into the heart. VSDs generally require open heart surgery.


Heart Valve Defects:

  • Atresia – the valve is malformed.
  • Regurgitation – the valve allows some back flow instead of being strictly one-way.
  • Stenosis – the valve opening is too narrow.


There are more congenital heart defects, some of which are very complex and involve several types of defects at once. Repair of these defects is complex and most often requires surgery.


What Causes Congenital Heart Defects? No one really knows. There may be a hereditary component or a mutation on one of the baby’s genes. Congenital heart defects are very, very rarely caused by something the mother did while she was pregnant.


About eight out of every 1,000 newborns has a congenital heart defect. Congenital Heart Defects Awareness Week hopes to make you aware of that statistic and make you aware of the problem.


Mary Lou Bernardo, PhD, MSN


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