As part of our Otorhinolaryngology rotation (easier name: ENT) we spent a morning at the Carel du Toit Centre (“where deaf children learn to speak”). I had been to one of their satellite centres before, as a volunteer in high school, and I never cease to be amazed by their work.
Did you know that there is no mandatory program in South Africa to screen newborns for hearing loss? For a deaf or hearing impaired child to learn to communicate by speech, three things are necessary, namely early detection, good parental involvement and high quality amplification devices. Early detection was a problem when the centre was opened in 1973, and it remains a problem due to this lack of screening.
We interacted with the children at the school, from the littlest kiddies, three years old, who were being taught vocabulary by experiential learning, to the grade threes, who are getting ready to go to public schools from next year.
Because of the lack of newborn screening in our country, the centre decided to start their own project, purchasing Otoacoustic Emissions technology and training nurses at selected clinics. The problem is about more than funding and technology though – because there is no national policy for screening, busy public healthy clinics are unlikely to screen newborns because they don’t have the time and they don’t have the prerequisite quiet space. Hearing loss is just not seen as a priority.
I’ve grown up sensitised to the plight of visually impaired children, because of my dad’s story. We need to be sensitised also to the needs of hearing impaired children – they also desperately need to be able to make sense of their world.
The World Health Organisation has an informal report on newborn screening for hearing loss here. It is telling that very few countries have mandatory screening programs – China and Canada, for example, have the programs but they are not mandatory. European and American nations have some penetrance of screening programs, while Asia and Africa have almost none. In fact, from my research (and I may be wrong), the only African country with a semblance of a national screening program for hearing loss in infants is Nigeria.
The brain is incredibly adaptive, and that excites me. There is so much we can do for the children – doctors, OTs, speech therapists, audiologists, the lot – if we can just detect the problem.