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Cochlear Implants Raise Meningitis Risk

CDC Advises Vaccination, Other Steps to Improve Safety

Benefit Still Outweighs Risk continued...

"Implants have done many wonderful things for children," Reefhuis says. "I've seen tapes of kids who once were deaf and now can sing. Parents should know that cochlear implants can open many, many doors for their child."

It's not an overnight cure. People have to learn how to make sense of the signals a cochlear implant gives to the brain. At first it sounds like a mechanical noise. But eventually the brain adapts and recognizes more normal speech sensations. This takes time and lots of work.

It also takes a lot of money. First, there's the cost of the sophisticated electronic implant. Then, there's the cost of surgery and rehabilitation. The price tag, according to Gates: $60,000 for children and $40,000 for adults.

But Gates notes that this is a lot less than the cost of residential deaf education. That's why the devices are put in as early in life as possible. A window of opportunity for learning speech quickly narrows after the age of 2 years. Though the FDA currently approves the implants for children older than 1 year, Gates suggests that earlier implants may be better.

How to Cut Meningitis Risk

No implant currently on the market is free of meningitis risk. But parents can do a lot to reduce any chance of infection.

The cause of the vast majority of bacterial meningitis infections is a bug called Streptococcus pneumoniae. There's now a vaccine against this germ. The same goes for the next most common meningitis germ, Haemophilis influenzae, or Hib. Children getting cochlear implants of any type should be fully vaccinated against both bugs.

Kids who already have cochlear implants should be vaccinated, too. The CDC has set up a hotline to advise about appropriate vaccinations: (800) 232-2522 (TTY: (800) 232-7889; Spanish: (800) 232-0233).

If your child has a cochlear implant, know the signs of bacterial meningitis. In infants and young children, the early symptoms are fever, irritability, sluggishness, and loss of appetite. In older children, there may be headaches, stiff neck, nausea and/or vomiting, confusion or altered consciousness, and discomfort looking at bright lights.

Some cases of meningitis in kids with cochlear implants seem to follow ear infections. It's a good idea for such children to see a doctor at the first sign of an ear infection.

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