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Infants to have hearing tested

Very few newborns have hearing problems. But the consequences of not detecting impairments early are severe.

Starting July 1, infants born in most Utah hospitals will undergo a hearing evaluation as part of their health-care screening. The tests, mandated by the 1998 Legislature, are an attempt to combat the deficits a child suffers when hearing impairment is not detected and dealt with in the first few months of life. All hospitals that deliver 100 or more infants a year must comply."We've found by research that kids who are identified early can develop normal speech and language," said Dr. Tom Mahoney, program manager of hearing, speech and vision services for the Utah Health Department. "If they're found later, they have much more difficulty."

When testing isn't done in hospitals around the time of birth, hearing deficits normally aren't identified until a child is 2 1/2 to 3 years old. But infants learn speech and language from the first few months to about 18 months. Without dealing with a hearing loss, Mahoney said, the ground that is lost is very difficult to make up.

The result of that can be tragic.

"The effect of a delayed identification of hearing loss is a permanent loss of speech and language that can lead to people who don't do so well vocationally or academically. It's been pretty well shown that in the long term you save money by early identification. We can keep these kids out of having to have all the special educational stuff that has to go on."

In the hospitals, specially trained nurses or technicians will conduct an otoacoustic emissions test. The results are given to both the parents and the health department.

Experts expect about 120 children with hearing loss will be identified by the testing each year. That's 3 per 1,000, a "fairly large number when compared to other things."

The infants identified with permanent sensory neural hearing loss will usually go into early intervention programs for therapy, Mahoney said. The state has a mandate to serve children with disabilities and "even in outlying and rural areas, there's early intervention available."

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Additional Information

May is awareness month to learn about speech and hearing problems

Gov. Mike Leavitt has dedicated a month to encourage Utah residents to learn about the speech and hearing problems some people struggle with. He formally announced the plan to designate May as Speech and Hearing Awareness Month Thursday.

Doctors at LDS Hospital diagnosed Rachel Spencer, 2, with a hearing problem at birth. She was fitted with special hearing aids and began a speech training program.

Stories like Rachel's have persuaded Leavitt to set aside a month to make people aware of their situations. Rachel joined Leavitt when he made the announcement at the Governor's Office.