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50 years of newborn screening

A screening programme that has seen thousands of newborn babies avoid a potential life of ill-health and suffering has celebrated its 50th anniversary.

“Newborn screening, popularly known as the ‘Heel Prick Test’ or ‘Guthrie Test’, was first introduced as a national programme in New Zealand in 1969 and is one of the most successful screening programmes in New Zealand and around the world,” says Deborah Woodley, Deputy Director-General Population Health and Prevention at the Ministry of Health.

“This screening means that metabolic conditions can be diagnosed before a baby becomes unwell and treatment can start straight away before life-threatening illness or developmental delays occur.

“Each year over 99 percent of all babies born in New Zealand are screened. That’s about 64,000 babies, of which, on average approximately 50 are identified as needing treatment,” says Deborah Woodley.

“In 2018, 67 New Zealand-born babies benefitted from metabolic screening. The impact of this is far-reaching as it affects the quality of life and future health of each child diagnosed with a condition, and also the quality of life of their family, whānau and their ability to contribute to society over time.”

“The impact the programme has had in improving the lives of thousands of children and their families over the last 50 years is substantial, and so important to acknowledge,” says Deborah Woodley. “The programme has evolved considerably over time. More conditions are being screened for and long-term research studies are improving treatment of the conditions.

“The programme is successfully managed and coordinated by LabPLUS, the Auckland District Health Board laboratory at Auckland Hospital in partnership with the Ministry of Health’s National Screening Unit, which has responsibility for the funding, monitoring and strategic direction of the programme.

“I’d like to personally thank the people who deliver this important programme, along with the midwives who perform the heel prick screening tests. Families are extremely grateful to have such a successful programme in place.”

To mark the 50-year celebration, the Ministry of Health has created six unique videos that tell the stories of the difference metabolic screening has made to the lives of New Zealand families. These moving stories highlight the way that early intervention is vital to making a difference to someone with a metabolic condition.


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