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Why Little Australians Have Big Ear Problems

Parents are always hawkeyed for stuff like runny noses, bloody noses, and weird cuts and contusions. Not to freak you out, but have you ever heard of runny ear syndrome? For certain kiddos, it’s a life-wrecker.


In Australia, 10.3% of newborn aboriginal infants were diagnosed with permanent hearing loss due to chronic ear infections.


And according to the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management, that figure has held fairly steady since 2006. Said another way, that’s about one in 10 kids for this group. This statistic is more disturbing than you may realize: According to Harvey Coates, a pediatrics doctor and professor at the University of Western Australia, ear health is a primary way of predicting socioeconomic success. If a child fails to develop decent spoken-language skills by age 4, he says, the domino effect starts with literacy issues and can culminate in run-ins with the law. Is this some tragic blow of genetics, the way sickle cell disproportionately strikes African-Americans, or that certain cancers are more prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews? Yes and no.


Poverty is one factor. Poor hygiene, lack of fresh water and lack of access to medical treatment are all part of life in aboriginal communities. All of these factors radically increase susceptibility to ear infections. All poor communities experience such problems, but there’s a difference in aboriginal ones: Smoking is ubiquitous, both among pregnant women and in general. The omnipresence ofcigarette smoke creates an ideal breeding ground for ear infections. Plus, Coates says, it’s not uncommon for nine to 20 people to live in one small house, aggravating the “day care effect.”


Then there’s anatomy and genetics. Anyone with kids in their life or a memory of childhood (some of us have blocked it out) knows that kids in general are prone to ear infections anyway. The eustachian tube is shorter and straighter in kids than in adults — gunk that can’t drain gets clogged like peanut butter in a straw.


Aboriginal kids have it worse than other kids on this point too. According to Coates, the angle of the eustachian tube in aboriginal children is also flatter, making it something of a conveyor belt for bacteria into the middle ear. Other indigenous children, such as Native Americans, have similar anatomical ear issues.


After a 2010 Australian government inquiry, aboriginal kids finally started receiving care. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 41 percent of those who got treatment experienced improvements in their hearing, and 26 percent regained normal hearing in both ears. But the government has not yet found a way to guarantee total treatment --- including oral or topical vaccines or surgery — according to Anthony Magit, clinical professor of surgery at UC San Diego, to prevent problems or to ensure that sick kids get help promptly. And the problems of one group of children in a disadvantaged community that has poor access to healthcare may go unrecognized.


The children are our future, right? Maybe kicking enough vaccines and antibiotics to this little crew could somehow make for a brighter, more interesting one.



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