Five million children have passed through the NHS screening programme for hearing impairment since it was introduced in 2001.
The Newborn Hearing Screening Programme (NHSP) screens around 13,000 babies a week, about 98 per cent of those born in hospital maternity wards or by health visitors in the community. The non-invasive process takes only a few minutes and involves a soft-tipped earpiece being placed in the baby’s outer ear. Clicking sounds are played through the device and when the inner ear receives the sound it usually produces an echo which is detected by the screening equipment.
Roughly 900 children born in the UK every year have significant permanent hearing impairment. Before the test’s introduction, nearly half of these children would have remained undiagnosed at the age of one and half years, with about 200 children still undiagnosed at three and half years.
If a hearing impairment is not detected early, it can have a serious impact on the development of the child’s language and communication skills, which in turn can affect educational achievement and mental health. Research suggests, though, that if deafness is identified in babies and appropriate support is provided, communication skills develop at the same rate as in the hearing population.
The Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, praised the NHSP saying that “babies born with a hearing impairment can now be identified much earlier. This allows babies with hearing problems to receive the support they need earlier to give them the best possible start in life."