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Experts back call for universal hearing tests

28 February 2006

Experts back call for universal hearing tests

An expert advisory group has backed the government's plan to introduce free hearing tests for all newborns, Health Minister Pete Hodgson said today.

The advisory group – established by the Ministry of Health's National Screening Unit – has published a report today that recommends the establishment of a universal screening programme, saying early detection of hearing problems was crucial for children and their families.

"The government believes all young New Zealanders deserve a healthy start in life," Pete Hodgson said. "We know that when hearing issues are picked up early, families are more likely to have a full range of options about how to help their children learn to communicate.

"Free hearing tests for newborns were a key element of Labour's Healthy Start policy during the election. I'm pleased that the expert advisory committee has backed our plans."

Congenital hearing loss is a significant health and disability issue, affecting between 135 to 170 newborns each year. Maori are disproportionately affected, accounting for 46 per cent of all deafness notifications.

The advisory group's report has found that a universal newborn screening programme would align New Zealand with other developed countries and allow New Zealand infants and their families to maximise the benefits of early intervention choices.

Research shows that with good early intervention, approximately 80 per cent of children with hearing loss could develop age appropriate language and communication.

A Joint Ministries Steering Group has been established, made up of Ministry of Health and Education officials, which will guide newborn hearing screening and early intervention policy.

The expert group says there are a variety of complex issues that need to be addressed before free hearing tests can be implemented, including workforce development, funding and information systems development. A further report from the National Screening Unit will be provided to Pete Hodgson by mid-year and will advise on the next steps that need to be taken.

The report is available at www.moh.govt.nz/nationalscreeningunit

ENDS

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