Expand newborn hearing screens to all: MDs

The Canadian Paediatric Society wants all provinces and territories to screen newborns for hearing problems.

Newborns in all provinces and territories should have their hearing screened, the Canadian Paediatric Society says.

The society's position statement on Monday noted up to three in 1,000 babies are born profoundly deaf. 
Three-year-old Amina of Iraq laughs during her first hearing test. Delayed diagnosis of hearing loss leads to significant harm for children and their families, the Canadian Paediatric Society said Monday in calling for universal hearing screening for infants. (Alan Diaz/Associated Press)

"The ability to accurately detect hearing loss in newborns and to re-establish hearing is one of the major advances in pediatrics in the last 20 years," said Dr. Hema Patel, author of the statement. "It’s not surprising that most developed nations have well-established infant hearing screening programs."

"It's not just a shame. It's a crime that Canada doesn't offer newborn hearing screening to every single Canadian newborn," said Patel, a Montreal pediatrician who is the mother of an 11-year-old son who has two cochlear implants.

Children with hearing impairment who have early intervention can be expected to develop to their full potential, including better language outcomes, the society said.

Traditional hearing tests rely on the subject to respond verbally to what they hear.

In newborn hearing screenings, a trained technician delivers sound to the baby through tiny electrodes or probes that are placed on the head. The non-invasive test looks at the brain's reaction to sound, said CBC's medical specialist Dr. Karl Kabasele.

In a second, simpler test, sound is put down the ear canal to check for an "echo" or response in the form of physical vibrations in the baby's ear.

Language development checks

When the anatomy is fine but the message isn't getting to the brain properly, sometimes hearing aids, a cochlear implant or other technologies can help, Patel said.

Ontario and British Columbia have fully funded provincial programs. Other provinces have partial programs, mainly  targeting infants in neonatal intensive-care units. Quebec has funding but has not implemented the program.

A recent Quebec report suggested that a provincewide screening program would result in a net savings of $1.7 million, largely through savings in education and training, according to the society.

After infancy, doctors, teachers and parents should check that children are meeting key developmental milestones — such as language development, the child's ability to express himself or herself, and to listen, respond and socialize — all of which are impacted by hearing, Kabasele said.

Patel said her son, who has two pediatrician parents and was diagnosed at seven months of age, has worked hard to make up for the time he was undiagnosed. The boy has done well and goes to a regular school.

With files from The Canadian Press