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Vaccine to address epidemic of ear disease in NT

New research hopes to pave the way for a significant reduction in the number of Aboriginal children with ear disease.

The study of 400 babies from remote communities in the Northern Territory will evaluate two different vaccines used to help prevent otitis media, a major cause of hearing loss in parts of Australia.

Head of Menzies Ear Health Research Program, Associate Professor Amanda Leach said almost all babies in remote communities in Australia develop the disease at some point.“It is unbelievable how highly prevalent this is,” said Leach, who is undertaking the study.

“If we can stop perforations in that first year of life, by giving them enough antibodies in their first year of life, that would be a fantastic start,” Leach said.

The research will work out whether it is best to give one vaccine or both, and what age is the best time to administer them to children.

“Not only do so many children suffer, but the hearing loss causes impacts on speech, language, behaviour problems, education and even now there is evidence about depression,” she said.

Leach said the World Health Organisation considers an incidence above four per cent of otitis media to be a major emergency.

Among Aboriginal children living in remote communities in the Northern Territory the incidence is about 20 per cent, about 200 times more prevalent than for other Australians.

Across the country, about 45 per cent of all Aboriginal children suffer from otitis media in their first year.

Deputy Mayor of the Tiwi Islands Shire Council Barry Puruntatameri said treatment of otitis media is important for the future of children in his shire.

“We hope the trial will help prevent the next generations from being affected by the disease,” Puruntatameri said in a statement.

The prevalence of otitis media in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory is thought to be the highest in the world.

“We are well above what is being found elsewhere, like Africa for instance, or elsewhere,” Leach said.

The study coincides with the release of an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report, which revealed the high demand for hearing services among indigenous children in the NT.

Almost 1,300 children were referred for hearing health services as part of the child health checks conducted in the Northern Territory,

Over 1,600 children also received an ear, nose and throat (ENT) referral during the health checks, and 73 per cent went on to receive the service for which they were referred.

However, the average waiting time between referral and service was 14.3 months for audiology services and 24.5 months for ENT services.

About 66 per cent of children who received an ENT consultation or audiological assessment were diagnosed with at least one type of middle ear condition.

Among children who received an audiology service, 53 per cent had some form of hearing loss and 33 per cent had hearing impairment. Around 11 per cent had a level of hearing impairment defined by WHO as a disability.

Encouragingly just over half of the children experienced improvements after initially receiving the services.

The report presents data from the Australian Government-funded follow-up ear and hearing health services. In addition, there was a 15 per cent decline in the proportion with middle ear conditions and 9 per cent decline in hearing loss.

With AAP

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