Newborn Metabolic Screening Programme

Photo of four babies
The Newborn Metabolic Screening Programme started in New Zealand in 1969. New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to have a national metabolic screening programme.

Since that time developments in both technology and knowledge about metabolic disorders as well as treatments available, has led to developments in screening so that we are now screening for 28 disorders.

Purpose of screening

  • To identify babies with metabolic disorders as early as possible so as to enable early treatment.
  • To reduce the chance of illness, disability and even death in babies with metabolic disorders such as hypothyroidism and PKU.

Background

Newborn metabolic screening began in the 1960s when scientists (notably Professor Bob Guthrie), developed blood on paper as an analytical specimen and a test to measure phenylalanine in infants to identify those with phenylketonuria (PKU). Professor Guthrie spent time in New Zealand with the late Professor Arthur Veale, the founder of newborn metabolic screening in New Zealand. Dr Dianne Webster now leads the service based at LabPLUS at Auckland City Hospital.

The NSU has responsibility for the funding, monitoring and strategic direction of the programme.

Each year almost all babies born in New Zealand are screened for 28 metabolic disorders. About 45 newborns each year are found to have one of the metabolic disorders screened for.

Metabolic disorders

Metabolic disorders are rare, usually inherited disorders in which the pathways that produce certain proteins malfunction. These pathways are like assembly lines in a human cell. A blockage at any point along the assembly line can lead to a build-up of toxic chemicals in the cell or a lack of an important protein or enzyme in the body. This can lead to an illness that is often irreversible, as many of the chemicals that build up in a cell as a result of a metabolic disorder can cause ill health, learning disabilities or death. Metabolic disorders at birth are not easily detected without screening and if symptoms present prior to diagnosis the chance of ongoing illness, disability or even death are higher.

The benefits of screening

For the few who are diagnosed through the screening programme, the benefits of screening are enormous. Early treatment can improve their health and prevent severe disability and even death.

Treatment

Treatment often takes the form of a special diet to reduce the amount of chemicals building up in the body. Sometimes it means ongoing medication.

NMSP Governance Team and Technical Group

The Newborn Metabolic Screening Programme Governance Team provides advice to the NSU on the operation and strategic direction of the programme. The Governance Team meets annually and has a smaller Technical Group which meets two to three times per year to consider technical and clinical aspects. The Governance Team comprises members who collectively have a wide knowledge and experience of newborn metabolic screening, including health practitioners, representatives of professional organisations and consumers.

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Page last updated: 03 December 2014