During the last decade, 35 deaf children have had their hearing impairment diagnosed and with this early intervention would have come ‘life-changing’ outcomes in terms of language, education and general development, according to Dr Anne Marsden, a paediatrician at Tameside Hospital, who specialises in audiology.
In total, up until the end of September 2013, 29,542 newborn babies have had their hearing screened since the service began - around 3,000 a year.
Before the establishment of a national screening programme screening, health visitors would check a child’s hearing at eight months but the median age of discovering a child was deaf was 17 months. Now the median age of diagnosis is under two months.
Dr Marsden said: “If you make the diagnosis or intervention early the outcomes for the children in terms of language, education and general development is life-changing. It makes such a difference and they have a much greater chance.”
Tameside Hospital has a dedicated team of four part-time screeners: Carole Blease, Diane Jackson, Vicky Bury and Joanne Burgess - who work every day apart from Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
The team screens new arrivals in the Maternity Unit’s Ward 27, the Labour Ward and in the Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). They also run a weekly drop-in clinic for any babies they were unable to screen immediately after they were born or to follow up any incomplete or missed screenings.
Mrs Blease said: “The way we have had to work has changed dramatically because mothers can be home in less than six hours. It makes the drop-in clinic an important feature and the first four weeks is the target if missed at birth.
“We also rely on NICU staff, along with health visitors, GPs and midwives to help us identify any babies that may have been missed, so they also deserve a big thank you for supporting us.”
The screeners work to a national protocol so the same information is used for all babies and parents are given the same information.
During the Automated Otoacoustic Emission (AOAE) screening test, a small soft tipped earpiece is placed in the outer part of the baby’s ear which sends clicking sounds down the ear. The screening equipment picks up an echo produced by the cochlea if the ear is receiving sound.
A second screen called an Automated Auditory Brainstem Response (AABR), which involves placing three small sensors on the head, shoulder and neck, works by seeing if there is a response from the brain stem to clicking noises.
The results are given to parents at the time; however, in a minority cases may not be clear due to background noise, temporary blockage of the ear after birth or if the baby is unsettled and in these cases further testing may be needed.
If the AABR fails to show a clear response the baby will be referred to Tameside Hospital’s audiology department.
Nationally, one in 25 babies whose second screen does not record clear responses may have a hearing loss in one or both ears.
But Carole was quick to add: “The majority of children who come for further testing at audiology will be absolutely fine.”