Medics call for all babies to have new deafness test

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All newborn babies should be screened immediately to check for deafness, a report commissioned by the Government says. Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor, explains why urgent action is needed to prevent delays in diagnosis for hundreds of children affected.

A discovery 20 years ago has made it possible to check the hearing of newborn babies with a simple test. The finding that healthy ears produce sound led to the development of a probe which, when inserted into the baby's ear, sends out clicks and then listens for the tiny echoes that a healthy ear should send back.

A study by the Medical Research Council's Institute of Hearing Research in Nottingham and the Department of Audiology at the University of Manchester has found that only a quarter of the 840 children born each year with permanent hearing problems are identified by the standard hearing check carried out by health visitors at 7 to 8 months of age. This test involves one health visitor distracting the child while another makes quiet sounds to see whether the baby notices.

The study, commissioned by the health department, found a further quarter were detected in other ways by the age of 18 months, but about 200 still remained unidentified at three and a half years. This means they do not benefit from hearing aids at a crucial time in their development.

The new test is cheaper and more accurate than the distraction test, as well as identifying those affected at a younger age. The MRC study recommends a national screening programme with a back-up distraction test at seven months for those who miss the earlier screen.

In the United States, 200 hospitals provide universal hearing screening, half using the British test. Only a few centres in the UK routinely screen all babies for hearing, one being Whipps Cross hospital in Essex.

Professor Adrian Davis, who led the study, said that spotting affected children early could prevent problems with education and long-term education and improve quality of life.

"Our research has led us to believe that [the probe test] is the most equitable and responsive, provides the best value for money and potentially gives the greatest benefits for hearing impaired children and their families," he said.

The study will now be considered by the health department's National Screening Committee chaired by Sir Kenneth Calman, the Government's chief medical officer.

Test-tube babies born after injecting a single sperm into the egg, a technique for overcoming male infertility which is growing rapidly in popularity, are twice as likely to have a major birth defect. The Australian study of 420 infants, published in the British Medical Journal, found that 31 had major defects, including cleft palate, hernia and heart, digestive or reproductive disorders.