Ringing the deafness alarm
Hearing problems in children need not be a sentence to a life of sign language
ONE in five children in Hongkong suffers an infection of the middle ear which, in the worst cases, can lead to severe, permanent hearing disability.
But long-term damage can be avoided if parents and teachers know what to look for and heed early warning signs, according to a leading audiologist and a US professor of hearing disabilities.
How to spot the ailment early was a key topic at a seminar on the educational and psychological needs of hearing-impaired children, chaired by Dr Noel Matkin, a professor in speech and hearing sciences at the University of Arizona.
Mr Kam Ping-kay, the senior audiologist of Phonak Hearing Centre Hongkong Ltd, which sponsored the seminar, warned that a number of permanent hearing disabilities in children could be prevented if treatments were given immediately instead of waiting until it was too late.
Often parents were not aware children were suffering middle ear infection if there were no signs of distress or pain, he said.
The infection, which can be treated by medicine or - in more serious cases - surgery, is usually the result of upper respiratory infection which blocks the eustachian tube, trapping fluid and causing ''glue ear''.
''If the infection is acute it can be very painful. But if not, parents may not even know about it,'' Mr Kam said.
In Hongkong, there are about 1,000 children whose hearing is so impaired they need hearing aids. But there are at least 10,000 children whose hearing ailments range from mild to severe.
Some are born with deformities, but Mr Kam said it was not always easy for parents or even doctors to immediately identify a child born with hearing problems.
''Unfortunately, many parents in Hongkong do not know if their child is deaf, or if they do know, are unsure about the severity of the deafness. It was the objective of the seminar to try to arouse concern about hearing problems in children, and educate professionals, doctors and parents, and especially to give them basic information,'' Mr Kam said.
He said there were early warning signs parents should watch for: at one month old, babies with normal hearing ability should blink or show some sign of response if they hear hands clapping; at three months, infants should turn their heads towards a voiceand at one year the child should already be babbling.
''If there are no such responses, the parents could suspect their child may have some hearing problems and should go to see an audiologist immediately to have the child tested. If the problem is detected early, it is possible to halt any further damage,'' Mr Kam said.
If the deformity is determined to be congenital and cannot be reversed, appropriate rehabilitation - hearing aids and special training - can be organised.
''The child can pick up secondary skills and can learn to talk much more fluently if parents know what the problem is early on, instead of waiting until the child is a few years old when it might be too late,'' he said.
Mr Kam said the ''golden period'' in which children absorbed information and acquired communication skills was up to the age of two.
''After that, they are much more difficult to train and the result is they are unable to speak at all much later in life.'' Other characteristics to look for in ascertaining whether a child may have hearing impairments include mood swings, behavioural problems, difficulty in concentrating and learning, and emotional tantrums.
''If a child has a severe hearing deficiency, he may also have psychological problems and be egocentric,'' he said.
Part of a family's unwillingness to acknowledge their child may have a hearing problem is partly due to the social and cultural stigma: they do not want to see their child with a hearing aid, and may therefore be depriving the child of valuable early rehabilitation.
''Unfortunately, testing is not very common in Hongkong. For most physicians, a child is either of normal hearing, or they are deaf. There is no in between,'' Mr Kam said.
''In the US, most hospitals screen newborns in the first three months if they are considered high-risk, to test for possible hearing problems. If a problem is defined as severe to profound, remedial training and separate services can be introduced.
''But I have noticed that in Hongkong, when parents notice their children may have hearing problems, they refuse to face reality. They may, in fact, reject them, just as society rejects them.''