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In the hear and now

2012-08-09

There is a simple remedy for rectifying hearing loss among young children, and thanks to a national program many are getting the help they need. Liu Zhihua reports.

Hearing loss can go unnoticed in children and many parents do not realize the alarm signals until it's too late. "At first my girl seemed normal, except she could only say 'mama' and 'grandma' when she was about 3," recalls Beijing mother Zhang Zhirong, whose daughter, Zhang Mingyue, suffered from hearing loss since birth. It was only when Zhang Zhirong took her daughter to visit her grandfather in hospital that the girl's inattention to repeated calls drew the attention of medical staff, who suggested she could have a hearing problem.

In early 2009, Zhang Mingyue was diagnosed with having profound hearing loss and a cochlea implant was prescribed.

The incidence rate of deafness among children younger than 6, is 1.5 per 1,000. About 137,000 of the nation's children younger than 6 suffered from hearing loss, according to a 2006 nationwide survey by China Disabled Persons' Federation (CDPF).

"More than 80 percent of them have severe to profound hearing loss," says Long Mo, vice-director of the China Rehabilitation and Research Center for Deaf Children, affiliated to CDPF.

"Hearing loss is a big challenge to very young kids and their parents, because it can delay language acquisition and lead to social isolation," says Ma Furong, director of the otolaryngology department at Peking University Third Hospital.

If hearing loss occurs and is sustained prior to the acquisition of language, it will impair speech.

"The acquisition of language is to a large extent an imitation of language they pick up from the environment," Ma explains.

Moreover, as most pre-lingual deafness is acquired through infant diseases or trauma rather than being genetically inherited, parents may not notice their children are hearing-impaired.

Many of these deaf children are from rural areas or poor families in the cities, Long says, adding they may miss out on getting a hearing aid even though it is relatively inexpensive - costing from just a few hundred to thousand of yuan.

For those who have profound hearing loss, like Zhang Mingyue, hearing aids are useless. But her family could not afford a cochlea implant - the cheapest one cost about 158,000 yuan ($24,800) in 2009.

The family resorted to daily injections of nerve growth factor, which cost 100 yuan per injection. But the treatment had little effect other than making the girl cry.

In early 2011, Zhang Zhirong sent her daughter to a Beijing school for deaf kids where she heard about CDPF's national program of providing financial aid for children younger than 5 with severe and profound hearing loss.

The program was started in 2009, with 410 million yuan ($64.41 million) in funding.

Up to now, 2,653 children have been given free cochlea implants, and 19,875 have received free hearing aids.

The program requires that the candidates have no other complications, such as severe brain development abnormalities or damage to the auditory nerve.

"There are so many kids who need help, but the funding is limited so we can only target those who will benefit most," Long says.

This year, the fund has reached a record 1.76 billion yuan. The plan is to help 16,000 children get cochlea implants and another 12,000 to get hearing aids in five years.

Furthermore, a website was recently launched by the China Rehabilitation and Research Center for Deaf Children to offer deaf kids easy access to the program. The application can be conducted online, and applicants can get quick feedback.

"We can also seek advice from experts or get in touch with others who have similar problems. It is very useful, especially to a family like mine," Zhang Zhirong says.

Her daughter had an operation on Aug 5 to put a cochlea implant in, paid for by the program. Now, she can hear many sounds she never heard before.

"She told me she can even hear the scratching of the pencil on the paper when she writes, and she is naturally curious about all the new sounds," the mother says.

"Also, she has become proactive and willing to play with her classmates."


A nationwide survey shows 80 percent of children with hearing problems, younger than 6, have severe or profound hearing loss and may need cochlea implants

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