A dip in the local swimming pool on a hot day may help to save thousands of Aboriginal children from ear infections and subsequent hearing loss, a scourge that continues to affect alarmingly high levels of children living in remote communities.
A Flinders University project has received $662,000 from the Federal Department of Health and Ageing to investigate the effect of swimming in salt-water chlorinated pools on the prevalence of middle ear infections among remote indigenous communities in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands of northern South Australia.
Middle ear infections (otitis media) have serious short and long term consequences for indigenous people in remote communities. They commonly cause significant hearing loss, which affects children’s education and social development and, in turn, has serious implications for vocational opportunities and mental health.
Project leader, Associate Professor Linnett Sanchez, told Flinders Journal that 74 per cent of children tested in the APY Lands fail a hearing screening test, presenting “horrific levels of prevalence of conductive hearing loss” consistent with findings about ear disease and hearing loss in many other remote indigenous communities.
The current project will extend a small-scale study in remote Western Australian communities that found that swimming in chlorinated pools produced a major decline in numbers of perforated eardrums, which are typically caused by middle ear infections.
“What we are going to do, in a much bigger sample, is look at ear health and hearing status combining medical examination of the children’s ears with a standard battery of audiological tests,” Associate Professor Sanchez said.
The new research builds on a program of hearing assessment for school-age children in the APY Lands that has been underway for five years funded by DECS and run by staff, postgraduate and undergraduate students from the University’s Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology and Flinders medical students.
“The longitudinal data already obtained provide an excellent baseline for the new project,” Associate Professor Sanchez said.
Some of the APY Lands communities have pools and some do not, enabling comparative data between communities incorporating several variables including frequency of pool use will be obtained. To incorporate seasonal variations, data for the new project will be collected twice yearly, in autumn at the end of the swimming season, and again in spring.
Associate Professor Sanchez said there have already been benefits from the earlier work: collection of whole-of-population data over the past five years has assisted DECS to provide appropriate infrastructure, such as the installation of sound-field amplification systems in classrooms throughout the APY Lands, while individual assessments have identified the worst affected children as eligible for disability support. As a direct consequence there has been a fourfold increase in the number of Anagnu children meeting the hearing impairment criteria for disability support.
Associate Professor Sanchez is chief investigator on the research team which includes lecturer in audiology Ms Karen Sparrow and ear, nose and throat surgeon Associate Professor Simon Carney of the Department of Surgery, and senior staff of the Anangu Education Service of the SA Department of Education and Children’s Services (DECS).