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April 23, 2004

Deaf talkabout: Medical advances are still a long way off for us

From: Belfast Telegraph - Belfast,Nothern Ireland,UK - Apr 23, 2004

By Bob McCullough

23 April 2004

AS recently as 1967, says a recent article in the Sunday Times, smallpox was claiming up to two million lives a year. Ten years later, after a race to trace and vaccinate everyone at risk, this ancient scourge had been eradicated.

In another big step forward, the World Health Organisation now says that four in five cases of blindness can be prevented or reversed, and it is working with charities and 80 governments to save the sight of as many as 60m people by 2020.

Helen Keller famously said that deafness is worse than blindness and yet, after all these years, no cure on the scale of the above has been found for our problem.

Loss of hearing can be alleviated by hearing aids, by cochlear implant operations or by learning sign language, but cures as spectacular and effective as those that took place with smallpox and blindness seem unattainable.

The success of the MMR programme should ensure that fewer children will be exposed to the baleful side effects of measles, mumps and rubella and their ensuing complications.

Doctors say that the inflammation of the brain lining that leads to meningitis is another leading cause of deafness in children and young people, but diagnosis and treatment is improving all the time.

Many of the born-deaf say they are perfectly happy in their silent world and pour scorn on those who look for a "cure"; but the recent rapid escalation of research into genetics is giving others hope that scientists are on their way to finding the cause, if not the solution, to the problem of deafness.

Perhaps the group of deaf people most likely to snatch at any new medical recovery programme are those who lost their hearing by illness or accident and still have a good memory of what they have lost.

My deafness started at eleven and I still have a clear memory of songs and music, much more so than my wife who became deaf at five. Would we still be able to appreciate them anew if our hearing was miraculously restored?

When Jesus healed a blind man in the Bible, the first reaction of the man was to see people as trees walking. "When we open our eyes in the morning", says the neurologist Oliver Sacks. "It is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to see. We make our world through incessant experience, categorisation, memory and reconnection." Can we say the same about the sensation of hearing?

If Evelyn and I had a sudden restoration of our hearing, and I am not talking about a slow or partial improvement but the abrupt change equivalent to the cataract being removed from the eye of a blind person, would our reaction be that of unrestrained joy or the frustration of discovering that we had to learn again to make sense of the sounds playing on our eardrums?

We are all born with the potential to use five senses, so the loss of one, no matter how we try to justify it, must in some way interfere with the quality of our lives. Most of us would agree that blindness is more of a physical problem than deafness and, while I would never underestimate the shock to one's system by sudden loss of sight, impartial observers would attest that the psychological aspects of deafness make it the more difficult to deal with.

© 2004 Independent News and Media (NI) a division of Independent News & media (UK) Ltd