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Inadequate Children's Hearing Services

MEDIACOM-RELEASE-NZ-AUDIOLOGICAL-SOCIETY

LOW EDUCATIONAL ACHIEVEMENT LINKED TO INADEQUATE CHILDREN'S HEARING SERVICES

The early detection and intervention of infant hearing loss is critical for normal social, cultural and educational development. But in New Zealand, hearing loss is being picked up too late and then, help is only being provided to those with significant problems.

New Zealand's record in early detection of hearing loss in infants is very poor with the current average age of detection of significant hearing loss being 21 months. The internationally recommended age of detection is 3 months with intervention occurring by 6 months of age. New evidence shows that children with minimal hearing loss are dramatically disadvantaged in their educational achievements. Speaking at the New Zealand Audiological Society Conference in Rotorua today, Dr Fred Bess Professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences at Vanderbilt University, USA, warned against resource allocation that bypassed children with "only" mild hearing loss. "My research shows that one in 20 children have a permanent mild hearing loss and 37% of these fail at least one grade at school, compared to a district norm rate of 3%. More than half these children experience difficulty in academic learning, attention, and communication. Perhaps even more interesting is the finding that children with this mild hearing loss exhibit greater social and emotional dysfunction than their normal hearing counterparts in stress, self esteem, behaviour, and energy," said Dr Bess. "At any one time in a classroom, 11.3% of children may have a hearing loss. At least half of these children have a permanent hearing loss. It's extremely disturbing when we already know our classrooms are very noisy and cause distress even for those with good hearing," he said. "But those responsible for assisting children with special needs should urgently recognise and allocate resource to help children with minor problems. The compounding effect of not assisting this group is chronic underachievement." In New Zealand, Maori and Pacific Island children are nearly twice as likely to suffer from hearing loss. Dr Bess stated that New Zealand health funding authorities needed to improve their efforts to identify and manage this population of children at high risk of failure. Services such as those provided by Advisers on Deaf Children should be extended to cover those with mild hearing loss, he said.

Given that a mild hearing loss interferes with the child's ability to understand speech in classroom type environments, he strongly recommends the use of assistive listening devices for these children. Greater efforts to identify and manage this group of children would result in an improvement in their educational performance and functional health status, according to Dr Bess. It could also result in substantial cost savings to New Zealand's education system.

Another keynote speaker, Dr Terence Picton of the Rotman Research Institute in Ontario, Canada, claims that delayed and inadequate testing of hearing in children means that they are unnecessarily left to develop permanent negative consequences.

"The age at which New Zealand children are commonly diagnosed (21 months) with hearing loss is too late. By two years, the hearing centres in a baby's brain have missed out on forming the vital connections to the speech and language centres," said Dr Picton. "A simple test is available to screen babies before they reach 6 months, but is not widely available nor mandatory in New Zealand."

In the USA twenty-four States have mandatory Universal Newborn Hearing Screening Programmes and twelve other States have laws in progress. Several Australian States are implementing universal New-born Hearing Screening Programmes. "Hearing loss is the most common congenital birth defect. It occurs 10 to 100 times more frequently than most of the other disorders that New Zealand babies are screened for at birth (the Guthrie test). The affects of hearing loss negatively impact on speech, language and cognitive development," he said.

A number of initiatives for new-born hearing screening are being developed in New Zealand. Dr Picton said, "If you want children to have the best possibly chance of reaching their full potential, the evidence for screening at birth is overwhelming". Dr Picton has developed a new objective testing procedure for assessing hearing in newborns. It tests both ears simultaneously and is not invasive.

The NZAS Conference Paediatric Audiology: New Challenges, runs from 3 - 5 August at the Rotorua Convention Centre. Both Drs Bess and Picton have been funded through grants from the Oticon Foundation in NZ, a charitable trust established by Oticon NZ Ltd. Each year the Oticon Foundation provides $100,000 in grants to projects that may increase awareness and knowledge about hearing loss, and for those with hearing loss, try to reduce the stigma attached, or helping to remedy hearing loss among adults and children.

ENDS

MEDIA RELEASE FROM THE NEW ZEALAND AUDIOLOGICAL SOCIETY

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