10,000 people could have undiagnosed heart condition AF in Northern Ireland

NI Chest Heart & Stroke is raising awareness about the heart condition which can cause strokes. Credit: NI Chest Heart & Stroke

As many as 10,000 people in Northern Ireland could have the heart condition Atrial Fibrillation (AF) which has not been diagnosed, according to a new report.

Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke (NICHS) commissioned leading health researcher, Dr Niamh Kennedy to lead an independent inquiry into AF – a heart condition that is responsible for 25% of ischaemic strokes.

The inquiry report estimates as many as 10,000 local people are undiagnosed and call on the government to focus attention on prioritising AF and increasing support for vulnerable people as they strive to rebuild our Health & Social Care.

The report was launched during a fringe meeting at Northern Ireland NHS Confederation’s flagship conference on Friday morning and is part of charity work supporting people to keep well during and after Covid-19.

Speaking at the Launch, Dr Kennedy stated: “Meeting the challenge of Covid-19 is vitally important but we cannot afford to lose focus on other key health conditions and must re-double what we are doing to support the thousands of vulnerable people living with chest, heart and stroke conditions. Many of these people have been living shielded lives and their health may have declined as a result.”

By proactively detecting heart conditions such as Atrial Fibrillation and working with patients to manage their conditions we have proven we can reduce the risk of stroke.

Dr Niamh Kennedy

The report found that there could be over 10,000 people in Northern Ireland who have AF but have not yet been diagnosed.

AF is a serious condition and people diagnosed with AF are five times more likely to have a stroke but with early diagnosis and intervention, a simple medication can radically reduce this risk.

Dr Kennedy continued: “In addition, we need to make sure the 40,000 people across Northern Ireland who already know they have AF are being properly managed. Our report shows that sadly many of them are not – many seem to be unaware of the risks of failing to keep taking their medicines as prescribed.”

Neil Johnston, Public Affairs & Policy Manager for NICHS added: “We know from the Covid pandemic that awareness and early intervention is critical in helping to save lives and protect the NHS and our work over the past two years further strengthens the need to prioritise AF. “We’ve pioneered AF in our health checks, checking over 4,000 people throughout 2019 and we detected AF in many people. In addition we raised awareness by over 20% through a campaign in 2018, but we need to work in partnership with government if we are going to truly tackle the devastation that can come from failing to diagnose and manage people with AF.”

The charity is committed to improving the lives of people with chest, heart and stroke conditions in Northern Ireland and strongly believes more focus on AF would help save lives as well as improve outcomes from stroke in people like Stephen Boyle from Belfast.

In 2014, Stephen had a serious stroke at home. He was admitted to Ulster Hospital A&E and it was there that he was informed he had suffered a stroke. He was also diagnosed with two conditions – dilated cardiomyopathy and Atrial Fibrillation. Speaking about his diagnosis, Stephen said: “I couldn’t believe the news," he recalled.

It was even more shocking to learn that the cause of my stroke was due to a condition known as Atrial Fibrillation or AF. I’d never heard of it before and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t more widely known.

Stephen Boyle

“As time went on I got more concerned about the lack of awareness about AF, especially as it can be so easily detected and managed. I tried to imagine how my life could have been so different if my AF had been picked up before I had my stroke?

"It’s so important that there’s more awareness and support in this area, especially if we’re are aiming to prevent and rebuild our lives coming out of Covid.”