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Experts took 18 months to realise my little girl could not hear; A delayed diagnosis has left Lauren Brooks struggling to talk. But thanks to a revolutionary programme, hearing problems can now be detected in new-born babies.

Byline: JILL PALMER

LAUREN Brooks wasn't diagnosed as deaf until she was 18 months old.

The delay means Lauren, now four, has poorer communication skills than her friends.

But a revolutionary scheme to test every new-born baby's hearing means that cases like this will become a thing of the past.

The one-minute test can be done while the baby is asleep. A device measures the echo response of the ear, which is analysed by computer.

When Lauren's sister Kaitlyn was born four months ago, her hearing was checked within 24 hours. Thankfully, it was perfect.

The quick, simple and painless procedure has already proved a success in the 40 areas of the country where it is being carried out.

Now the Newborn Hearing Screening Programme is to be phased in to every NHS maternity unit over the next two years.

"Research shows that identification of hearing problems and intervention with care programmes prior to six months of age means language, speech and communications skills are substantially better at the ages of three, four and five years," says Prof Adrian Davis, Director of the Newborn Hearing Screening Programme.

"There is some indication that early intervention brings hearing-impaired children up to the level of performance of hearing children.

Currently, 195,000 babies are being tested each year using the system, but it is hoped that by March 2005, each of the 600,000 babies born in England every year will be screened within days of birth. About 900 babies are born deaf every year - nine out of 10 into families with no history of deafness. But the old "infant distraction test" - which relies on children responding to loud noises - picked up only one in two deaf babies.

This meant that up to half of deaf children were not diagnosed by the age of 18 months, while a quarter remained undetected for three years.

Simon and Nicola from Newark, Nottinghamshire, had no reason to believe Lauren was deaf as she had passed all her "infant distraction" tests. But when she started sitting up and looking around they realised she never noticed when they walked into a room. "Lauren would not look round when we went into the room and she wasn't reacting to things," says Simon, 24, a police officer. "But our concerns were really triggered by her lack of speech. She wasn't saying anything."

Extensive tests showed that Lauren had serious hearing difficulties. Although not profoundly deaf she suffered "severe deafness".

She was fitted with hearing aids and last month became one of the first children in the country to be given digital hearing aids.

"Her aids give her a reasonable level of hearing but there are still certain frequencies she cannot hear and if we talk to her we have to face her directly," said Simon.

"The old hearing test was woefully inadequate. Lauren lost two years of hearing because her problems were not detected sooner.

"The major problem with late identification is its effect on language development. It is very obvious when she has friends of the same age round. You can hold a conversation with most four-year-olds but not with Lauren.

"Her digital hearing aids have resulted in a major improvement. She is talking a lot more now. But if we had known she had hearing problems from birth we could have done a lot more to help her."

Although the cause of Lauren's deafness is not known, Simon and Nicola were warned there was a chance any future children could also have hearing problems.

But in contrast to her sister, Kaitlyn benefited from the Oto-acoustic emission (OAE) screen. This involves placing a small soft-tipped ear-piece into the outer part of the baby's ear and playing a quiet clicking sound.

When a hearing ear receives the sound it produces an echo response which is recorded and analysed by the computerised screening system.

It takes an average of 30 seconds to a minute and can be done while the baby is asleep. If there is no clear response a second test called the automated auditory brainstem response is carried out. This involves placing small sensors on the baby's head and neck and then presenting clicking sounds through tiny soft head-phones called muffs.

This test measures the electrical response in the brain.

"The newborn hearing screen is far more accurate than the infant distraction test," said Prof Davis. "There is very little chance of hearing impairment at birth being missed.

"If babies are identified with a hearing loss very early on, precious time is gained to help them and their family develop communication skills."

Contact the National Deaf Children's Society free on 0808 800 8880, email helpline@ndcs.org.uk or visit www.ndcs.org.uk

CAPTION(S):

FAMILY: Simon and Nicola with Lauren and Kaitlyn; SISTER ACT: Lauren with baby Kaitlyn who had OAE screening early on; Pictures: DOUG MARKE/PAGE ONE
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Title Annotation:M Health
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 11, 2003
Words:812
Previous Article:medical round-up; Medical Correspondent JILL PALMER reviews the issues that are making the health headlines.
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