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Should All Newborn Babies Get Hearing Tests?

Intervention May Help When Babies Are Identified Early With Hearing Loss
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WebMD Health News

Aug. 18, 2005 -- Screening all newborns for hearing problems could make a big difference in kids' lives, a British study shows.

Every day, approximately 33 U.S. babies are born with significant permanent hearing loss and three newborns leave the hospital with undetected deafness or hearing loss, according to a news release from the Deafness Research Foundation.

The sooner those problems can be identified, the sooner kids can start programs to help them develop to their full potential.

A new report on hearing tests for babies appears in The Lancet.

Study's Findings

The study focuses on 66 7- to 9-year-olds with permanent childhood hearing impairment in both ears.

Thirty-five of the kids were born before screening hearing tests were given to all babies in their area. Only 11 of them (31%) got a referral for hearing problems before they were 6 months old.

The other 31 kids in the group were born when all babies in their area got hearing tests. More of them (23 babies, or 74%) were referred for hearing problems before they were 6 months old.

"Universal newborn screening leads to early referral of permanent childhood hearing impairment," write the researchers. They included Colin Kennedy of the pediatric neurology department at England's Southampton General Hospital.

The researchers plan to check on how early intervention affected the kids' speech and language development, as well as the costs of those efforts.

U.S. Report Card

How does the U.S. rank in infant hearing tests?

According to a report from the Deafness Research Foundation and the World Council on Hearing Health, nearly nine out of 10 babies get hearing tests at birth, and 50 states plus Washington, D.C., have policies or laws on the books requiring hearing tests at birth.

But screening programs in three states (Alaska, California, and Ohio) got an "unsatisfactory" rating in the report. That rating meant that 80% or fewer of babies were screened. The data are for May 2004.

"Each year, more than 12,000 infants in the United States -- one in 300 -- are born with a hearing impairment. Of these, 4,000 are profoundly deaf. In fact, hearing loss is the number one birth defect in the United States. Despite this, only 89.8% of babies are currently screened for hearing loss at birth," states the report.

Next Step

Kennedy's study is "an important first step in persuading us that hearing screens are an important public-health measure," write Patricia Mutton and colleagues in an editorial in The Lancet. Mutton is a pediatrician at the Deafness Centre in Children's Hospital at Westmead in Westmead, Australia.

But testing is just part of the solution, they write.

"Just as screening of hearing in infants has some challenges, parents face challenges in adjusting to the diagnosis of hearing loss and the recommendation to fit hearing aids in an apparently perfect infant. The potential for a family to reject the results of a computerized test of hearing in their 'perfect' baby can be very challenging for workers in the field," write Mutton and colleagues.

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