A retrospective investigation of sudden unexpected death in the young investigated at Salt River Mortuary, Cape Town

Master Thesis


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Sudden unexpected death in the young (SUDY) is the tragic fatality of seemingly healthy individuals aged between one and 40 years. Little is known about the demographics and risk factors of these cases at Salt River Mortuary (SRM), Cape Town. Therefore, this project aimed to retrospectively investigate the burden and profile of SUDY cases admitted to SRM, between 1 January 2016 and 31 December 2018. Of the total 11 588 cases admitted over this period, 833 (7.2 %) were SUDY cases, wherein males comprised the majority (64.3 %). Individuals were a median age of 31 ± 10.3 years at death, and the main location of death was ‘residential' (43.5 %). There were also significantly more males than females in the age category of 31 - 40 years who were found outdoors compared to all other locations (p < 0.001). Risk factors included physical activity, substance abuse, and co-morbidities with concomitant use of chronic medication. More than a third of individuals experienced breathlessness prior to death (45.0 %). Of cases with a confirmed natural cause of death, the main organ systems involved were pulmonary, cardiovascular, central nervous system and gastrointestinal, which parallels international trends. Akin to local studies, in analogous amounts, TB and pneumonia were the leading causes of death. Additionally, 21.1 % of cases were identified as candidates for genetic testing which may resolve undetermined cases or elucidate underlying predisposing factors to sudden death. Fortunately, 81.8 % had biological samples available for these retrospective analyses. Cases often had missing documentation which advocates for training to ensure compliance to standardised procedures. This study shows that males aged 31 ± 10.3 years with pulmonary and cardiac-related co-morbidities are the most vulnerable for SUDY whilst sleeping. Awareness interventions targeted at this population are thus needed in an attempt to reduce these tragic fatalities.