MEPs lead demand to get sudden unexplained deaths recognised as a syndrome

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 16 October 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:886
  1. Rory Watson
  1. Brussels

    The World Health Organization and national statistical offices are coming under pressure to officially recognise sudden death syndrome in a bid to reduce the number of unexplained deaths among healthy children and young adults.

    Embedded Image

    Marc-Vivien Foe of the Cameroon, who collapsed and died during a football match in June


    The campaign is being led by two British Labour MEPs, Linda McAvan and Catherine Stihler. They point out that since cot deaths were officially recognised as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) over 10 years ago, deaths had fallen by 70%.

    In a letter to Britain's national statistical office, they note: “Although the actual cause(s) of SIDS remain unknown, giving these cases a recognised name has enabled researchers to better study the problem and propose measures which have clearly helped to reduce deaths. Experience with SIDS also highlights how the use of a clinically recognised term can provide some comfort and solidarity to bereaved families who are often left deeply shocked and isolated.”

    At the moment, deaths that remain unexplained after a postmortem examination are registered and coded as due to causes that may be vague or incorrect, they add, making it difficult to construct an accurate picture of the real scale of the problem.

    A recent study by the British Heart Foundation concluded that up to three previously fit and healthy people in England suddenly collapse and die every week with no explanation. However, according to Alison Cox, who founded the charity CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young) eight years ago to raise awareness and provide a focus for bereaved families, the figure could be as high as eight a week.

    The two MEPs have already contacted Dr Jong-Wook Lee, the head of WHO, asking the organisation to recognise sudden unexplained death in young people aged over 1 year by a specific name and with a proper reference in the 10th version of its international disease code (ICD-10). Systematic and exclusive use of the specific code would, say the MEPs, make it possible to collect and collate the information needed to study the problem, determine its true scale, and eventually propose measures that could save lives.

    Silvia Priori, professor of cardiology at the University of Pavia in Italy and a leading expert in this field, welcomed the initiative to help raise awareness of juvenile sudden death.

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