Oct 2019 ABC News

aboriginal

Hearing loss and ear disease affects 12 per cent of people in Aboriginal communities

Thousands of Aboriginal children have outstanding referrals for specialist hearing appointments in the Northern Territory because services have been cancelled, a six-year report into hearing health has found. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's (AIHW) NT hearing health report analysed the success of the Hearing Health program delivered to more than 10,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from 2012 to 2018.

Key points:

  • 1,200 fewer hearing services have been delivered to Aboriginal children in the NT since 2016
  • More than 6,000 children have outstanding referrals to have their ears checked or problems treated
  • Nine out of 15 youths in the NT's youth detention centre have a recognised hearing problem

Hearing loss and ear disease is considered a public health emergency in the NT by the World Health Organisation because on average it affects 12 per cent of people in Aboriginal communities.

The AIHW report found, while the percentage of youth with hearing loss decreased by 8 per cent over six years, at least 530 outreach audiology services had been made unavailable since 2016.

There were also 443 fewer ear, nose and throat teleology services and 253 fewer clinical nurse services from 2016 to 2018.

The report stated the drop was because of a shortage of specialists available through the Federal Government-funded Remote Area Health Corps (RAHC). The shortage meant 2,600 children and young people had outstanding referrals to see an audiology service to diagnose potential ear problems at the end of 2018. Three thousand, four hundred and eighty four youth were also overdue for ear, nose and throat appointments, where hearing loss can be assessed and treated.

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A Federal Department of Health spokesman said $500,000 in extra funding would be committed to RAHC in 2021, and an additional $4 million dollars over three years would go to the NT Government's Healthy Ear Program.

Menzies School of Health Research professor Amanda Leach has been working in hearing health in the NT and said Aboriginal communities were becoming frustrated with service delivery. "Even if you look back at the data from the 1970s, 18 per cent of children under four with ear drum perforations. It's still almost that. One elder told me a story of a boy who's now around 14 years of age and still got really big problems with discharging ears and not hearing properly. He was first identified as a little kid, before school, and they're still waiting for something to happen for that child."

NT Health Department's Amarjit Anand said a major shortage of fly-in specialists contributed to the long wait lists, as well as an increase in children needing the programs. She also said there were no courses in the Territory for audiologist qualifications. "Most of the audiologists who come from RAHC have full-time jobs wherever they live interstate and they actually take leave, annual leave or leave without pay to come work for us," she said. "We've got discussions happening through Flinders University with Charles Darwin University and also La Trobe university … to start a program here.” The NT Health department has not set a target for reducing the waiting list.

Anna Marie Kitchen understands the crippling impact ear problems have on someone's life.

Until she was 60 years old, she couldn't hear much of the world around her because she had holes in her eardrums that developed from multiple untreated ear infections soon after she was born.

She had surgery at 15, but wasn't referred for hearing aids that she needed. Ms Kitchen said her opportunity to receive a good education and achieve her goals were gone. "It was awful (in school) because people didn't like you. You had an infection. And then of course when you're at school you got the bullies (saying) 'ah, yuck you stink.' because you got an infection," she said. "It played a big part in losing a lot of things in life and education … I wanted to be a secretary or something like that, but who's going to answer the phone when you can't hear the other person.”

anna marie kitchen

Anna Marie Kitchen hated school because she couldn't hear the teachers and was bullied for her infected ears

Data from Territory Families indicates in September 2019 nine out of 15 youth detainees at Don Dale Youth Detention centre were identified as needing hearing assessment. Professor Leach said hearing loss continued to cause low school attendance and delayed social and language development among Aboriginal youth. "They're misunderstood, those children, because they're not responding to commands or communications … they can't keep up with their peers so they tend to muck up and have behavioural problems," she said. To improve education outcomes, the Territory's Council of Government Schools is lobbying the NT Government to spend $23.3 million dollars on upgrades to schools across remote and rural regions. The Catholic Education system has already completed $500,000 worth of upgrades in all of it's Northern Territory schools. Acting Education Minister Eva Lawler said in a statement she recognised early intervention was vital to treating hearing issues. She said schools would be able to undertake the upgrades with $300,000 of funding that they would receive under the four-year term of the Gunner Government.

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