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The New Project Fighting Hearing Loss Among Indigenous Children

A ground-breaking project titled The Hearing for Learning Initiative aims to fight the startling percentage of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory with hearing impairments. Combining public and private funding, the $7.9 million five-year program endeavours to combat this serious ear health crisis in the Northern Territory, as untreated ear diseases can contribute to a lifetime of disadvantage in the areas of health, education, and employment. Here is how The Hearing for Learning Initiative intends to fight childhood hearing impairments.

9 out of 10 Indigenous children in the Northern Territory have a hearing impairment

The statistics regarding hearing impairments among Indigenous children in the Northern Territory are dire. Nine out of ten Indigenous children younger than three years old in remote Northern Territory communities have a hearing impairment. Thousands of these children and young people are currently on waiting lists for audiology and surgical assessments, which requires audiologists to fly to their community for the appropriate treatment. However, the time spent on such waiting lists can be as long as six months, which can be critical considering children are undergoing rapid brain development and language skills.

After extensively studying the effects of otitis media (or ‘glue ear’) on children’s education, childhood development and social outcomes, researchers have concluded that the impairment needs to be detected significantly earlier. According to Neil Balnaves, the Chancellor of Charles Darwin University and founder of The Balnaves Foundation, the number of Indigenous children affected by glue ear is both unfair and unequal.

The Hearing For Learning initiative

This is where the game-changing Hearing for Learning Initiative steps in. The five-year program is funded by the Northern Territory and Federal Governments as well as The Balnaves Foundation. Spearheaded by Dr Kelvin Kong and Professor Amanda Leach, the program aims to reduce the need for fly-in fly-out specialists by training and employing local community members as support workers. Once trained, support workers will be equipped to recognise the symptoms of glue ear, assist with diagnoses, and help families treat and manage infections.

The initiative hopes to reach 5000 children, particularly those younger than three years old. It will begin in four remote sites and is expected to expand in up to twenty communities in urban, rural, and remote Northern Territory areas, eventually employing 40 community-based workers who will be locally trained and supported.

A community-based approach

According to Dr Kong, an ear, nose and throat surgeon who is also Australia’s first Indigenous surgeon, The Hearing for Learning Initiative will implement a community-based approach that focuses on transferring the knowledge back into the community. Ear health project officers will be trained in how to carry out basic medical examinations and navigate the health system in order to help patients receive appropriate care.

“We want to teach them to look into ears, see holes in ears, see perforation, know how to manage them, know what to do,” says Dr Kong. “They are not going to be able to necessarily prescribe or treat or do surgery, but they are going to be able to know ‘this kid is all right, this kid is not all right’.”

The wants and needs of the participating communities will be at the forefront of The Hearing for Learning Initiative, with the communities asked about how they think the program should roll out and which members should be involved. “We think this program will provide a culturally safe and appropriate long-term service,” says Professor Leach, leader of the Ear Health Research Program at Menzies School of Health Research.

Concerned about your child’s hearing health?

Regular hearing checks are fundamental to maintaining hearing health and preventing serious issues from developing. This is particularly important in the case of children, as hearing impairments can negatively affect childhood speech and language development. If you are concerned about your child’s hearing health or if your child is simply due for a regular hearing assessment, contact The Art of Hearing through our website or by calling (08) 9390 8811.