Sudden death can be avoided with a CRY for help and a few simple tests

Every week eight apparently fit and healthy young people drop down dead and that is a conservative estimate. Some say the number could be double.

Some collapse and die on the sports field, others on holiday, at work, school or at home. The only common denominator is that the tragedy comes out of the blue with no warning.

All leave bereaved families shocked, grief stricken and angry that such a thing can happen to young people in the prime of life.

Some die with the shock of a sudden call on their mobiles or the early morning ring of an alarm clock. Some collapse after exercise, others are found dead in their bedrooms or die while watching television.

Sudden death among the young is a weekly tragedy that gets little publicity unless the victim is well known.

The latest case that gained national attention was the tragic death of Phil O' Donnell, the Motherwell captain and one of Scotland's best-known professional footballers. He collapsed in the 72nd minute of a match aged 35 and died from heart failure.

He was one of a group of footballers, some in their teens, to die of heart failure in what ought to be their peak years of fitness.

And it is not just footballers, an 18-year-old tennis player died after a coaching session, a 23-year-old body builder, a boxer aged 24, a 13-year-old swimmer and a 17-year-old rower all died suddenly, as they approached the top levels of their sport.

These are the famous victims. For the families of most young people who die apparently without cause there is very little publicity, very little notice taken except at local level.

For years an Epsom Downs-based charity, CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young) has been working flat out to fund research into the tragedy of sudden death in youngsters and young adults, to campaign for an organise what can be life-saving screening to find undiagnosed heart problems and to bring comfort and support to the bereaved. It has the active support of some of the country's leading cardiologists.

CRY was started by Alison Cox, a tennis player and ex-wife of former Davis Cup player Mark Cox. Last year she was awarded the MBE for her dedicated and life-saving work setting up and running the organisation. She has sought for more recognition of the lethal problem and has organised fund raising events to finance CRY's work including support and counselling for bereaved parents.

She has a personal interest in the problem. Her son Steve was a promising tennis player but during a routine test in America it was discovered that he had a rare and undetected heart condition which made playing sport extremely dangerous for him. It led to a complete re-think of his life and career.

Since then Mrs Cox has given her life to running the charity in the hope of saving parents from the heartbreak of attending their child's funeral. She is determined to see facilities for testing youngsters spread across the country, not just for elite sportsmen and women but for every teenager.

Steve Cox, who is now deputy chief executive of CRY said: "We saw a highly significant increase in people visiting the website and in the number of calls after the death of Phil O'Donnell.

"Something like that has a major impact on public awareness of the condition but one of the tragedies is that a high profile death is in the headlines for a day and then it disappears. At least eight people a week die and our belief is that it could be significantly higher.

"In Northern Ireland there were four deaths in a week and since then there has been a huge demand for our screening programme.

"We are not just offering our services to athletes but to the general public. A lot of publicity surrounds the death of an athlete but people don't hear about the other seven who died that week."

He was devastated when his career as a professional tennis player was brought to a halt by a heart problem found when a screening programme was introduced after the death of a basketball player on his university campus.

"It was a huge blow – 18-year-olds don't expect that sort of news. My career was going to be in professional sport but I had to come back and re-think. It was very hard but I had to think positively.

"With some conditions it is very important that you don't player a league sport. If you don't do that you can lead a normal life, but league sport is not normal, the stress on the body is incredible.

"Things are changing fast. For some people if they are screened and a problem is found they can have a procedure and return to sport and lead a completely normal life. For others they may have be make modifications to their lifestyle but screening is important – a life-saver," he said.

CRY has attracted some famous patrons including actor and comedian David Williams who was recently screened for heart abnormalities in a campaign to persuade teenagers to come forward for testing.

"The charity does amazing work in raising awareness of cardiac risk in the young. The tragedy is that the deaths of so many young people from cardiac problems are preventable," the comedian said.

Another patron is Sir Steve Redgrave, the rower who famously won five Olympic old medals. He said: "I am pleased to be a patron of CRY having had first hand experience of the impact of such a death. Robert Hayley was my best friend and crewmate. He was extremely fit and we had just recently, as juniors, won a senior race together. We had been watching TV when he suddenly stood up and died of what we were told was a cardiac abnormality. He was 17. That memory is always with me."

Philips, the electronics giant which makes high tech medical equipment, has funded a CRY elite athlete research programme involving the screening of 1,500 of the UK's best athletes.

It has also supplied CRY with medical equipment to help spread routine screening to teenagers throughout the country.

CRY's ambition is to offer screening at every secondary school in the UK but at the moment it is restricted to private schools and some states one in Lewisham and Essex because of the lack of interest by the state sector and a lack of resources.

But parents can apply to CRY for their teenagers to be screened at its routine clinics, and its mobile clinics visit sports clubs and other venues to carry out testing.

The vast majority of teenagers and young adults who are tested are given the green light to carry on with their normal activities.

But where the results of the ECG scan are in doubt the patients are sent for further tests which usually show that they are completely normal.

But for the few where abnormalities are picked up, then the knowledge can literally save their lives.