Deafness in more than 1,500 babies missed by poor screening

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More than 1,500 families in Britain are unaware they have a deaf child because screening for deafness is inadequate.

More than 1,500 families in Britain are unaware they have a deaf child because screening for deafness is inadequate.

About half of babies with hearing difficulties are missed by the present screening method, according to the charity Defeating Deafness.

The current test, introduced in the 1960s, involves making sounds until the baby turns its head to see where they are coming from. A test developed nearly a decade ago, which involves inserting a probe into the baby's ear, is cheaper, more accurate and can detect deafness within hours of birth, but it is used by only 2 per cent of health authorities. The probe emits clicks and listens for tiny echoes that a healthy ear should send back.

Early detection of deafness in children is crucial to ensure they get hearing aids or other help when they are learning to talk. Half of the 840 children born with hearing difficulties each year are not diagnosed in their first 18 months, and half of those are not detected until they are aged more than three and a half.

Children whose deafness is missed at this critical early stage suffer devastating effects on their social skills and capacity to communicate.

Claire Rayner, chairman of the Patients Association and a former ear, nose and throat nurse, said yesterday: "Every day in the UK, two children are born deaf. One of those children will have their hearing diagnosed within the first few months of life, enabling the family to adapt to their child's deafness and consider hearing aids, cochlear implants or sign language.

"The other child will remain undiagnosed and isolated for 18 months or more. The child's language development and educational achievement will be seriously affected during the crucial early years.

"We have the technology to test all children at birth, yet the simple test is only available to the lucky few. It is a scandal and a national disgrace."

The Otoacoustic Emissions Test costs £13 per child screened, and was recommended for universal use by a Medical Research Council study in 1997. The Government's national screening committee is considering the recommendation and a decision is expected in the autumn.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "They are looking at how and if universal screening could be introduced. It is a very detailed piece of work to put together."

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