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Deafness in young children

It can be mild, moderate, severe or profound. Children with mild deafness have difficulty following speech, mainly in noisy situations. Those with moderate deafness have difficulty following speech without a hearing aid. Those who are severely deaf rely a lot on lip-reading, even with a hearing aid. So, sign language may be the first or preferred language for deaf children.

Hearing aids are available but they are expensive. Profoundly deaf children understand speech by lip-reading and signs made by the speaker using hands, facial contortions or even leg movements. Deafness can cause communication difficulty and children who are deaf may be at risk of physical and social isolation.

Children with deafness or partial hearing are at a greater risk of accidents because they may not hear warning alarms and sirens. In some countries every newborn baby gets a hearing test within 48 hours of birth. In our part of the world this practice is rare.

World Health Organization (WHO) statistics show that on the average, about 10 out of every 1,000 children are born deaf or develop deafness when they are young. Four out of the 10 are usually profoundly deaf. About one in every 1,000 children goes deaf at the age of three years.

Between the ages of nine and 16 years two in every 1,000 children go deaf. However, I must point out here that the commonest cause of hearing loss is ageing. Seventy- five per cent of people who are deaf are aged over 60 years. From 40 years of age, more men than women become hard of hearing.

However, among people aged over 80 years, more women than men are deaf or hard of hearing, not because women are more likely to become deaf but because women live much longer. Now, let us look at hearing and deafness from the scientific point of view. The process of hearing begins when sound waves enter the auditory canal.

Just as ripples of water travel across the surface of a pond, sound travels by the successive vibrations of molecules. Ordinarily, sound waves do not carry much energy. But when a large number of waves strike the eardrum, it moves back and forth (vibrates) slightly. Organs called ossicles receive the vibrations from the eardrum and transmit them to an oval window, having amplified
them about 20 times.

These sound waves or signals can then be detected by the brain. Hearing loss can result from damage or disruption to any part of the hearing system. Causes can range from wax blocking the ear canal to age-related changes to the sensory cells of the cochlea or to brain damage. Side-effects of medication and acoustic neuroma can also cause hearing loss in both children and adults.

However, common causes of deafness in children include inherited conditions, infection during pregnancy, meningitis, head injury, glue ear and foreign body obstruction. Excessive exposure to noise is also a source of a particular pattern of hearing loss, contributing to hearing problems for up to 50 per cent of deaf people. So, I must caution parents to make sure they keep their children a discreet distance away from noises that are likely to impair their hearing.

Often people fail to realize the damage they are doing to their ears until it is too late. In some cases hearing gadgets may restore hearing. Cochlear implants often save the situation for some people The ability to communicate is an essential part of living in human society.

Although loud music is often blamed (and MP3 players or Walkmans are said to be storing up an epidemic of deafness in years to come) research has also blamed tractors (for deafness in children of farmers), aircraft noise, gun salutes and even cordless telephones. A recent research has shown that 72 out of 110 users of MP3 players tested in the UK listened to music or rather noise volumes above 85 decibels.

This is dangerous noise. According to the WHO listening to earphones at 85 decibels or more for over an hour at a time can damage hearing. Studies suggest that ageassociated hearing loss can be prevented if ears are protected from loud noises starting even during infancy.

Hospitals are now aware of the problem and are taking steps to ensure that neonatal intensive care units and nurseries are as quiet as possible. Since even listening to city traffic for extended periods can damage hearing, frequent attendance to live or disco music concerts or constant loud music from a stereo are dangerous.

Even prolonged noises for motorcycles can cause gradual hearing loss. Exposure to intense sounds of short duration, such as a mining rock blast, a burst of gunfire, a thunderclap or jet engines at close proximity can result in immediate hearing loss. Parents also need to be aware that some medicines are ototoxic.

They damage any of the elements of hearing. Cancer drugs, especially Cisplatin; and certain antibiotics including streptomycin, kanamycin, and gentamicin, make ears susceptible to a hearing loss. Anyone, especially children, who takes such medicines, should protect his or her ears from loud noise. Let us take a closer look at the sounds that impair childrenís (or adultsí) hearing ability.

Jet engines have sound levels exceeding 125 decibels. Jet engine noise goes beyond the threshold of causing pain in the ears. It can also cause complete hearing loss. A thunderclap or nightclub concert music can pack over 120 decibels of noise and can cause permanent hearing loss instantly or gradually if a child (or adult) is exposed to their noises from time to time.

Older children can block their ears with their fingers to shut out dangerous noise. Infants should be protected when close to dangerous noise. Earplugs can come up handy in a noisy situation. Avoiding infections and exposure to excessive noise reduces the risk of deafness. Technological advances in hearing devices are a good help for those with hearing loss.

spmwita@yahoo.com Phones: 0787 44 66 22; 0787 66 22 99 or 0715 14 66 22

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Author: SOSTHENES PAULO MWITA

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