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Silent Death Stalks Airways and Highways



February 8, 2006
For immediate release

Silent Death Stalks Airways and Highways

A pilot or bus driver suffers a heart attack at a critical moment and a catastrophe results with passenger injury and even death. Rare? Not as rare as you might think, and, sadly, almost completely preventable. Is the transportation industry doing everything it can to keep you safe?

At the airport, you stand in line eager to check in for your flight. Directly in front of you the captain and copilot stop to chat with the gate agent. They appear trim and fit with a touch of grey at the temples that signals years of experience. You even overhear the captain bragging to his copilot about passing his recent airline physical with a low cholesterol of 125 and a perfect stress test. Moments later, you find your seat, buckle up and await a short, smooth flight home, confident your life is in the hands of mentally and physically competent pilots.

But tragedy is waiting. During landing, the captain has a heart attack. In the commotion, perhaps the copilot fails to notice the flaps are set improperly or misses an indicator warning. The plane stalls, then crashes to earth. Thirty-two people are injured and eleven die, including the pilot.

Could this happen?

You bet. Events like this really do occur. A 2004 FAA study reported the chilling fact that 1 of 3 pilots had experienced an incapacitation that caused them to relinquish their duties to a colleague while in flight. One of the more spectacular close-calls occurred in 2001 when an American Airlines flight en route to London from Los Angeles carrying 200 passengers made an emergency landing in Las Vegas with the pilot gasping for breath and without a pulse. In fact, the last time the FAA formally looked at this issue, 44 such events were recorded between 1982 and 1991. Of the 44 events, only 20% of involved pilots had a medical history that suggested risk—80% did not.

Can an airline physical be wrong?

Commercial pilots must pass a physical examination by an FAA qualified medical examiner every 6 months. Among the health factors that can disqualify someone are blood pressure greater than 155/95, angina pectoris (chest pains), coronary heart disease or history of heart attack, diabetes requiring insulin, and failing a stress test (required after age 35). All of these are clearly risk factors for heart attack and should disqualify a person from flying an aircraft.

So what happened to our captain? Didn’t he pass all these requirements? Yes, he most assuredly did. But the tests weren’t wrong. The FAA advises the wrong test!

Dr. Steven Nissen, cardiologist at The Cleveland Clinic, has clearly stated that "we now know that 95% to 99% of the heart disease occurs at sites WITHOUT artery narrowing. Thus, the old tests we perform to detect narrowing and blockages have really misled us. We miss over 95% of the heart disease that causes heart attacks."

The problem is bigger than just the airlines
Commercial drivers also require physical exams to stay licensed. These are the people driving Greyhound buses, sight-seeing trips and private excursions, and our children. Just this month, a bus carrying 49 passengers plunged 400 feet off a cliff in Carlsbad, California after the 53-year old driver suffered a heart attack and lost consciousness.

How about semi-trailers speeding along the nation’s highways? There’s no need to speculate about the potential danger of an out-of-control, 100-ton “missile” plowing down the interstate.

A five-minute test can prevent tragedy

While any fatal accident is tragic, this one may have been preventable. Is there was an inexpensive that could uncover hidden heart disease before catastrophe strikes? Wouldn’t it be prudent for the airline industry and all commercial transport industries to require pilots and drivers to pass it? Shouldn’t it be mandated to protect public safety?

There is such a test. It’s called a heart scan and it is widely available across the entire country. Heart scans have the power to accurately detect even minimal amounts of heart disease and assign a heart attack risk score that is significantly more predictive than virtually any other non-invasive test including cholesterol testing.

"Plaque imaging (heart scanning) is. . .not to be confused with risk factors, which merely estimate a probability of developing atherosclerosis. Rather, [plaque imaging] directly measures atherosclerosis, irrespective of the presence or absence of risk factors; it provides the final common denominator and is the most powerful predictor of cardiac events," proclaims noted heart disease authority, Dr. Harvey Hecht of The Heart & Vascular Institute of Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York.

Must tragedy precede common sense?

It took recent back-to-back mine disasters for the legislature and mining industry to start applying common sense. Must we wait for the fiery death of a plane load of passengers or a bus full of children before proper action is taken? For now, it is not a matter of “if” but “when.”


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