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Hearing Trouble

A simple test can help.

Advances in Treatment

Most people don't realize that today's hearing aids are so effective that in all but the most serious cases, people with hearing impairments can be made to hear as well as anybody else, says White. Cochlear implants can be used in cases where the child's own cochlea (the nautilus shell-shaped organ in the inner ear that translates sound into vibrations the brain can interpret) is so damaged that hearing aids simply won't work. With the help of these advances, both of the Miller girls are now hearing at or above normal levels despite being born nearly deaf.

Having two hearing-impaired children in the same family is not unusual. While some hearing problems are caused by environmental conditions like ear infections, the vast majority are caused by congenital defects. And though 90% of children with hearing impairments are born to parents with no hearing problems at all, once a couple has a child with hearing problems, the odds are one in four that subsequent children will have similar problems, according to NCHAM researchers. And that, says Laura Miller, is why she pushed so hard to have Samantha's hearing tested.

A Screening for Every Child

Advocates for the hearing-impaired argue that every child should have the same chance Samantha got. "Our goal is to see that every child gets a screening at birth," said Elizabeth Foster, director of the National Campaign for Hearing Health, a Washington, D.C.-based group that promotes awareness of hearing issues. "Every day that goes by when a child's hearing problem is not identified is a day that is lost for auditory and verbal development."

Unlike hearing tests for older children, which require the child to respond to a sound by raising a hand, hearing tests for infants measure vibrations produced by the cochlea. (The infant tests are painless.) If the vibrations are weak, further computer-aided testing can measure the baby's brain activity in response to noise, confirming the diagnosis of a hearing impairment. While the basic screening test cost as much as $600 per child 20 years ago, today's equipment has brought that figure down to about $40. "It is now feasible to test every child when they're born," says White. "The tests are accurate and inexpensive."

So why aren't all infants being tested? White blames the delay on the current health care climate, where expenses are often considered before patient needs. "Hospitals are looking to cut procedures out, not to add new ones," he says. But despite the slow pace of change, White is optimistic. With urging from both the medical community and the government, more and more hospitals are making infant hearing screenings a standard procedure.

"If left undetected and untreated, a hearing disability will have a significant impact on language development," says Foster. "That's why we have to identify these kids within the first six months. If it goes undetected after that, their speech levels will probably test below normal almost indefinitely. Parents shouldn't have to go through the heartache of late identification of these problems."

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