U gets grant to help kids with hearing loss

Craig Gustafson

Five out of every 1,000 newborns suffer from hearing damage, a setback that puts young children a step behind their peers in speech and language development.
The Minnesota Lions Club gave a $575,000 grant to a University program that screens newborns for hearing deficiencies. The money will be used to fit children with hearing aids, something that might help them develop speech and language skills at the same pace as other children.
As part of the agreement, the University and the state Department of Health will disburse the money to other Minnesota institutions that qualify to run screenings.
Serious infections, a difficult birth, an extremely low birth weight, or the need for a blood transfusion could all lead to hearing damage.
Momentum for the program began in 1993 when a National Institutes of Health panel recommended hearing screenings for all newborn infants. To follow through with the plan, several states, including Minnesota, passed legislation to help hospitals develop screening programs.
Hospitals, however, have been unable to comply since no funding was provided to back up the legislation. As a result, hearing-loss detection has been placed behind eye exams on the priority lists of many institutions.
The Lions Club effort stemmed in large part from the apparent lag in government funding for hearing-loss programs.
Since the club offered their support to the University, more than 40 institutions have expressed interest in applying to the program.
It costs $15,000 to install the equipment and train staff at each location. By all accounts, the amount is small compared to the benefits of early detection.
Al Greenfield, a reading specialist with the state Department of Children, Families and Learning for the past 27 years, said hearing and vision problems are the two biggest hindrances to success in school.
“Early experiences are so powerful that they can completely change the way a child turns out,” he said.
Greenfield added that a person creates a foundation of knowledge in their first five years. With a hearing problem, they cannot absorb information at the same rate as their peers.
A healthy child with constant interaction can increase their intelligence quotient by 10 to 30 points by age five.
Robert Margolis, the University director of audiology, said when hearing loss goes undetected the effects could be irreversible.
“The time for learning speech and language and a lot of other things is in the first few years of life,” he said.
Currently, only 25 percent of Minnesota infants are screened. Iowa leads the effort in screening with 95 percent of newborns tested.
Margolis said the state’s legislature has been very aggressive in pushing for increased screenings.
Technology advances now make it possible to test infant hearing prior to discharge from the hospital at a significantly lower cost. Children who fail the test can immediately be referred to specialists.
Robert Nemeth, chairman of the Lions Hearing Foundation, said the grant will aim to prevent educational costs down the line.
“The money that it would cost to catch a child up (after years of hearing problems) is astronomical and may not even help,” he said.
Nemeth said the goal is to detect and provide service to all newborns with hearing deficiencies by the end of the five-year program.
“Finding out your child is deaf is traumatic enough,” he said, adding that purchasing an expensive hearing aid sometimes make the situation unbearable. Most hearing aids cost about $3,000.

Craig Gustafson covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected]