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January 26, 2003

Deafness major problem in Northland schools

From: STUFF, NZ - 26 Jan 2003

Hundreds of Northland schoolchildren cannot hear properly when they start school, leaving them facing serious education and social problems.

More than 15 per cent of new entrants at Northland schools fail a basic hearing test, according to Ministry of Health figures.

The figures show that in Northland 15.3 per cent - the worst rate in New Zealand - of new entrants failed a basic school entry hearing test.

Nationally 6.4 per cent of new entrants failed the screening test.

Hawke's Bay, at 11.3 per cent, is the next- worst region.

For Maori the situation was even worse - 22 percent of Northland Maori new entrants failed the hearing test, compared with the national average of 11.3 per cent.

Of the roughly 2480 new entrants in Northland primary schools last year, about 380 would have failed the hearing test.

The figures are 15 months old but they were the latest available, Northland District Health Board community and public health manager Chris Farrelly said

However, Northland Health initiatives since the data was collected might have started to turn the worrying figures around.

Whangarei ear, nose and throat surgeon Jerry Gathercole said glue ear was the main cause of hearing difficulties in children, and Northland was out in front in that area, too.

Evidence showed poor hearing had long-term effects on children's educational and social learning.

Not enough was being done to solve the glue ear problem, Dr Gathercole said.

"It puts kids behind in their reading particularly, as well as their general education," Dr Gathercole said.

"It can also leave them with behavioural problems and lots of other noticeable effects."

More than 300 children were on a waiting list for grommets, which helped overcome glue ear. Many had to wait more than six months to have grommets inserted into their middle ear to drain fluid, Dr Gathercole said. "It's upsetting to see these kids waiting so long," he said.

The scale of the problem in Northland did not surprise him, and was a serious concern.

"We've known for more than 20 years that this would happen," he said.

Grommet blitzes, involving dozens of children having grommets inserted on the same day, had helped. However, they were at risk.

"The Government says our grommet rate is the highest in the country and is not going to give us any more money to do these blitzes," Dr Gathercole said.

Compounding the problem was the lack of ear, nose and throat specialists in Northland, which also needed an audiologist.

Tauranga had four ENT specialists, compared with Northland's two.

Mr Farrelly said a focus group, made up of public health nurses, ear nurses, community health workers and iwi, was set up in 2001 to try to address the Northland situation.

Since then initiatives had been put in place to try to help, using community clinics and including families in the process.

"I'm pretty positive that we can arrest this problem. We are involving the families more rather than just treating the kids in isolation," he said.