Editorial | Screen student athletes
Nothing, perhaps, may have prevented Monday's tragic, on-field death of St George's College footballer Dominic James, which has triggered an outpouring of grief by schoolmates, fellow young amateur footballers, coaches and sports administrators.
In all likelihood, other such unfortunate incidents will occur among student athletes. The issue, therefore, is how to make such incidents as rare as possible and what, if anything, those who preside over organised sport are doing to ensure this.
In the aftermath of young Dominic's death, the focus, understandably, has been on the level of the medical expertise at such sporting events and the quality of equipment available to them. At Monday's match between St George's and Excelsior, two doctors were present, one of whom, Ivory Alexander, is physician to the St George's team. But he lamented the absence of oxygen and related resuscitation kit at the venue.
The Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA) does have a medical protocol for its daCosta Cup and Manning Cup competitions, the latter of which the teams were participating in. Schools should, at least, have a nurse present at the matches, and games played should be no more than 15 minutes from a medical facility. In later rounds, when there are fewer matches and games are under the direct management of ISSA, the association undertakes to have an ambulance on spot.
Given the expense involved, Jamaica's economic circumstances and the range and volume of school-level sports played in the island, it is perhaps difficult to have medical personnel and appropriate kits, including defibrillators, at all venues for all sports. But it should be a goal of the Government, the sporting associations and participating schools to have as much as possible in the shortest time. A policy for the training and financing of such a programme should be urgently established.
However, while being able to treat emergencies is critical, it is just as important that there are strategies to prevent them. And the best way is to have an understanding of which of our young athletes may be at risk from congenital problems that may be exacerbated by strenuous exercise.
In the United States, between 0.5 and one per 100,000 young athletes, below the age of 35, dies suddenly each year. Further, sudden deaths are 2.5 times more likely among children who play sports and non-athletes. Most of these deaths relate to malfunctioning of the heart. The incidence of sudden deaths among young athletes is lower, studies suggest, in countries, like Italy, where there is aggressive screening. Indeed, some US states, including Texas - where a bill was tabled in the state legislature last year - want to make screening mandatory.
There are no known studies of this issue in Jamaica, but the issue was placed on the agenda two years ago when Kavahn McKenzie, a 17-year-old St Jago High School student, collapsed and died in Trinidad and Tobago, after competing in a six-kilometre cross-country race. The Jamaica Heart Foundation, at the time, pitched the idea of screening to the education ministry, ISSA and some high schools, at a proposed cost of J$1,000 per screened student. It appeared that everyone was enthusiastic, but follow-through from the authorities, it seems, has been poor.
This matter must be urgently put back on the agenda.