No help for the hearing impaired in India

NAGPUR: Around 6% population of India suffers from some hearing difficulty, making it one of the countries with the highest number of hearing impaired. Of these, one in 1,000 people are born with hearing defect, while one in 10,000 children have a structural anomaly, rendering their ears too small to be able to hear well. Despite such high density of hearing-impaired population, the country does not extend a lot of help to these people, believe doctors.

These doctors had assembled in the city to attend the annual conference of Vidarbha branch of Association of Otolaryngologists of India, organised in association with ENT department of NKP Salve Institute of Medical Sciences (NKPSIMS).

"With the high birth rate in the country, the number of people suffering from anomalies also increases. Moreover, not taking enough care within the first three months of pregnancy makes a woman and the unborn baby susceptible to many viral infections that can lead to congenital hearing defects," said Dr Vivek Harkare, head of the ENT department at NKPSIMS. He also said that several new techniques have come up that can help such children.

Loss of hearing can also be caused by accidents, infections, aging and certain drugs like those used to treat tuberculosis, said renowned ENT surgeon from Mumbai's KEM Hospital Dr Hetal Patel. "Conventional hearing aids have given way to bone anchored hearing aids (BAHA) which make use of bones of the skull to conduct sound towards the brain. These are especially helpful for kids with small or no outer ears," she said.

She also spoke about cochlear implants, an option that is used when no hearing aids can be used by a hearing-impaired person. "Originally developed to correct age-related hearing loss, the implants have proven very useful in case of children born without the ability to hear. However, the surgery should be done before five years of age as it becomes difficult to teach them to speak at an older age," she said. Dr Patel believes that neonatal screening should be done to assess hearing so that most of the kids born with the defect can be helped in time.

Secretary of AOI, Vidarbha Dr Prashant Nikhade said that with the cost of a cochlear implant being high, there was a necessity of government aid for these children as many of them come from economically backward families.

Dr Patel said that governments of states like Kerala and Andhra Pradesh have extended some help in this regard.

Few people come forward, however, to seek help even after knowing something is wrong with their hearing, said Pune-based ENT surgeon Dr Sandeep Karmarkar. "Today, every class has a few students with spectacles on but even if there is one student who uses a hearing aid, he is mocked at. This social stigma and non-acceptance of the disability makes the suffering worse," he said.

He warned that infections occurring during childhood should never be neglected as they have been known to recur during adulthood with more severity. "Sometimes, these infections can even lead to complications like brain infections," he said.