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Hearing loss screening not universal yet
By Anita Manning, USA TODAY

Nearly 70% of American babies undergo routine testing to detect hearing loss, a dramatic increase from 1999 when only 25% of the nation's newborns received such testing, says a report being released Tuesday.

But it's only a small gain from 2001, when states reported testing 65% of babies in hospitals, says the National Campaign for Hearing Health, which compiles data on hearing screening in 50 states and the District of Columbia for its annual report.

The organization says more than 12,000 babies are born each year with a hearing impairment, including about 4,000 who are deaf.

If detected in the first weeks of life, says Louis Cooper, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, new amplification and audiology devices and training can allow children to develop speech and language skills "at a pace comparable to hearing children."

There are "critical phases in learning development" in infancy, says Cooper, a professor of pediatrics at Columbia University. "The goal is to have children detected and in intervention programs before age 6 months. If you do that, you have kids whose language development matches that of their hearing counterparts."

The tests are painless and cost about $20-$30, per child, he says. One version measures brain activity in response to sound and another measures response within the ear. Insurance coverage varies from state to state and among insurance providers.

It's important to screen before babies leave the hospital, Cooper says, "because it's the last guaranteed shot we have at those babies, and it's such an efficient, inexpensive and controllable way to do it." Once they go home, he says, it becomes harder to diagnose hearing loss. "Parents deny it, doctors deny it and many babies are visually alert, so they pick up cues," making it harder to know they can't hear.

Hearing advocates fear momentum is stalling.

"The new data is not very encouraging, especially because the 2003 presidential budget eliminated funds for infant hearing screening programs," says Elizabeth Thorp, director of the National Campaign for Hearing Health. "We want to reach new and expectant parents and grandparents across the country and educate them on the need for mandatory infant hearing screening."

Thorp's group gave "excellent" ratings to 14 states where more than 95% of babies receive hearing screening and where there are statewide screening programs. "Unsatisfactory" ratings were given to six states — California, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Vermont and Washington — where fewer than 44% of infants are screened, the report says.

The data show major changes in some states between 2001 and 2002. When one or two maternity hospitals in less populous states start screening babies, the statewide percentage can jump overnight, says Karl White of the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management at Utah State University, who compiled the ratings.

Dramatic drops in percentages reflect poor data-management systems that resulted in overestimates last year, he says. Missouri, for instance, shows a drop in testing from 39% in 2001 to 20% this year. "It's just that they're reporting more accurately now," White says.

This partly explains the modest increase in the national percentage of babies screened, Thorp says, along with "the fact that some larger states, like California and New York, which have such a huge number of births, are not making any gains."

To see the full state-by-state report:

© 2002, USA Today


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