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Detecting Infant Hearing Loss

One in 300 children is born hearing impaired. It's the most common affliction among newborns and early detection is critical for a child's development. But the problem usually goes undiagnosed for years, reports CBS This Morning Investigative Correspondent Roberta Baskin.

It costs about $30 to check a new born for hearing loss. But every day, babies are sent home unable to hear their parent's voices. The technology to detect infant hearing is available, so why isn't it widely used? Parents can worry too much, but soon after Heather Young had her first child, Jennifer, she was certain something was wrong.

"When she was six weeks old she didn't have much of a startle reflex," Young says. "She didn't wake up when the door was slammed or the vacuum cleaner was running." When Jennifer was 18 months old, she could say only a few words, and had terrible temper tantrums.

"She didn't talk at all," Young says. "And whenever she wanted anything she would stamp her feet and scream." Over two-and-a-half years, Jennifer saw eight doctors. Their misdiagnosis was that the Youngs were anxious parents. None of the doctors ordered sophisticated hearing tests.

"My insurance wouldn't pay for the test," Young says. "My pediatrician was not aware that there was a way to test children's hearing." It was a psychologist who finally sensed that Jennifer couldn't hear, and referred her to an audiologist, who immediately fitted her with hearing aids.

"We were in the car driving home and Jennifer started crying," Young recalls. "It was a fire truck with the sirens going. She had never heard the sirens that loud before and it scared her. She didn't know what it was." It took Jennifer another year to get used to the hearing aids and learn to speak. She had missed out on several years of development. The Youngs' troubling story didn't end with Jennifer. Their second child, Elyse, also was born hearing impaired, but it took a year to diagnose her problem because, once again, insurance wouldn't cover the test. Heather's youngest child, Ty, was born in Colorado, one of 21 states that mandate hearing tests for newborns.

"Ty was tested at 12-hours-old and he flunked," Young says. Because it was a standardized test, Heather's insurance company did pay for Ty's initial screening, as well as some of the more comprehensive tests that followed.

"They refused to pay for the $25 dollar hearing test, but will pay for years and years of intensive speech therapy," Young says.

Most of the time, hearing problems aren't detected until the child is already two-years-old. But at Inova/Alexandria in Virginia, doctors are routinely ordering hearing tests for newborns. Medical studies have shown that if hearing loss is detected early, within the first six months of age, language skills will develop normally.

The test takes about five minutes and is conducted while the infant sleeps. Three eectrodes are placed on the baby's head to measure the brain's response to sound coming through tiny earphones. Dr. Lisa Goldberg is the medical director of the neonatal unit. She says traditional methods of testing hearing are outdated and miss many children that new, universal testing would catch.

"I can say now for sure that we have picked up babies that I, after examining them, would not have known they were deaf," Dr. Goldberg says. The National Institutes of Health recommended hearing tests for babies within their first three months of life. So why do some health insurers resist paying for it?

"There hasn't been to date a lot of good evidence to suggest that this is helpful in identifying newborns who have hearing impairments," says Susan Pisano, president of the American Association of Managed Health Care Systems. She says her members won't pay for screening until a federally funded task force officially recommends it.

"Up until now, all of the bodies have not agreed that there's a test that's good enough to really help identify babies who do have hearing problems, without alarming countless parents and families of babies who don't," she says. But in parent Heather Young's experience, what's really alarming is when doctors don't identify a baby's hearing impairment.

"The truth is, is that we can test for it now and stop the long term effects of it," she says. "The disability is not the hearing loss. The disability is the late identification of that hearing loss."

For more information, contact the National Campaign for Hearing Health or Inova Health System's Web sites.

Reported By Roberta Baskin

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