What Superstar Rajnikanth said in his polio campaign in the 1980's is equally valid for deafness too: deafness is neither an endless curse nor a repercussion of a previous birth. A substantial percentage of all deafness is preventable, according to doctors. Preventive measures can reduce the occurrence of ear and hearing disorders by over 50 per cent, says Jacinth Cornelius, who headed the State Project for Control of Deafness until recently. He says a large percentage of causes are treatable by surgical methods while other patients can be rehabilitated with hearing aids, cochlear implants, and speech and hearing therapy. Deafness is the largest and most common abnormality to affect our children, Mohan Kameswaran, ENT surgeon, and director Madras ENT Research Foundation, says. But it is also the only curable handicap, provided you start early.

Consanguineous marriages (marriage among blood relatives) and German Measles or rubella are two of the major causes of deafness in the country, he points out. Both are avoidable if there is sufficient awareness.A large-scale campaign against marrying among blood relatives can bring down deafness to a considerable extent. All it requires is modifying a community's customs for the sake of the child's health, and if enough information is spread, it would be possible to prevent such problems, he added. Rubella is now a vaccine-preventable illness, so mothers can protect themselves against the mild illness that affects them and leaves the baby with deafness.

Equally important, Anirban Biswas, president, Association of Otolaryngologists of India, points out, is the need to identify deafness immediately after birth. In Western nations, a simple test is done 48 hours after birth to see if the child is born with hearing impairment. Unless this test is done, the birth certificate is not issued. “If you miss the diagnosis, the child may also be mute. It need not be so,” he clarifies.

While supporting universal neonatal screening for deafness, Dr. Biswas says, meanwhile parents would be the best diagnosticians. Small techniques like clapping or making noises to see if the child responds appropriately can be done at home itself. Even if there is a slight suspicion about the baby's response, he advises parents to take the child immediately to the ENT. Hearing aids or cochlear implants will go a long way in helping the child pick up language. “A child may be born deaf, but whether he/she becomes mute or not is entirely society's contribution. If the child does not learn to speak by 2.5 or 3 years, the capacity to learn language is not developed and he/she will be mute. The least we can do is ensure that this does not happen,” he stresses.

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