Improvements in ear and hearing health of First Nations children

The proportion of First Nations children aged 0–14 with an ear or hearing problem has declined from 11% in 2001 to 6.9% in 2018–19.

The first annual report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), Ear and hearing health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 2023, was launched today by Worimi man Professor Kelvin Kong. The report presents a set of measures to track changes over time in ear and hearing health of First Nations people and their use of health services.

The report also shows that between 91% and 98% of First Nations babies receive hearing checks after birth in Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia. 

Newborn screening leads to earlier identification of hearing loss that is present at birth, earlier intervention and, ultimately, better language development and better educational and social outcomes. While all states and territories have universal hearing screening programs for First Nations babies, there is currently no national data collection.

Within one month of birth, 94% of First Nations babies in Victoria, Queensland and Western Australian and 81% in South Australia had their hearing checked, similar to rates for non-Indigenous babies. 

’Hearing problems in children can affect speech, language, thinking skills and behavioural development,’ said AIHW spokesperson Jo Baker.

‘First Nations people and in particular children, experience high rates of ear and hearing problems, which can have profound impacts on overall health and quality of life, including the ability to communicate cultural knowledge and their immersion in culture.’ 

Ear, nose and throat surgeon Professor Kelvin Kong, of the University of Newcastle's School of Medicine and Public Health, said most ear disease and hearing loss affecting First Nations people is preventable.

‘While First Nations people continue to experience elevated rates of ear and hearing problems, their ear and hearing health has steadily improved over the last 10 years due to new initiatives by government, Aboriginal Medical Services, non-government organisations, specialist medical and paramedical groups, and researchers,’ Professor Kelvin Kong said.

Many factors influence ear and hearing health, including social and economic disadvantage, contributing to greater rates of untreated acute and chronic ear infections among First Nations people.

Early detection of middle ear infections, the the main cause of hearing loss among children and young people, is vital for appropriate treatment. Identifying and treating ear and hearing problems can be challenging and navigating the complex hearing health system can be difficult for families.

’Access to culturally safe ear and hearing health specialist services is crucial for First Nations people to seek and receive timely diagnosis and treatment,’ Professor Kong said.

Encouragingly, the rate of audiology services for First Nations children aged 0–14 increased from 12 per 1,000 population in 2010–11 to 14 per 1,000 in 2021–22.

The AIHW will continue to monitor and track improvements in the ear and hearing health of First Nations people. Additionally, the institute is developing a Neonatal Hearing Screening Data Collection, in consultation with all states and territories, that will be a source of nationally consistent newborn screening data.

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