Canada has long had a progressive record on social issues. For example, for more than 30 years Canadians have had publicly funded universal health care. Yet the country is lagging behind most other prosperous nations, including the United States, in an important aspect of hearing care: newborn hearing screening.
Despite growing criticism from the media (including from HearingHealthMatters.org), most Canadian provinces do not screen every baby born for hearing loss. In contrast, all 50 U.S. states have had universal newborn hearing screening (UNHS) programs in place for years.
IN CANADA, “A RESOUNDING FAILURE”
The latest and strongest diatribe against Canada’s poor record on detecting hearing loss in infancy comes from André Picard, public health reporter for The Globe and Mail and a much-honored journalist and author.
In an article entitled “Newborn screening: A resounding failure in Canada,” the Montreal-based writer notes, “…almost every developed country has a universal hearing screening program. Not Canada.”
He points out that only four of Canada’s ten provinces screen every child for hearing loss, and even fewer ensure timely follow-up and treatment for children who do have auditory problems.
The case for UNHS is strong and clear, Picard states: “Newborn screening is essential and cost-effective. Babies undergo a couple of simple, non-invasive tests and, if necessary, they can get help immediately, from hearing aids to speech therapy later on.”
He adds, “Permanent hearing loss in a child should be considered a neurological emergency, not a catch-as-catch-can condition. Because auditory deprivation can have an impact on brain development and learning, the cost of inaction is being paid by thousands of children every year.”
REPORT CARD ISSUED
Canada’s bad record on infant hearing screening has not escaped the attention of hearing professionals in that country. On March 25, Speech-Language and Audiology Canada (SAC) and the Canadian Academy of Audiologists (CAA) released a national report card. Only one province, British Columbia, was rated “excellent.” In Canada’s most westerly province, 97% of newborns are screened and there is a good program of follow-up for babies who fail the screen.
Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, were rated “good,” though 5%-10% of babies go unscreened and follow-up is sometimes lacking.
The picture in the rest of Canada is much worse, according to the SAC-CAA report card. Saskatchewan has no screening or standards in place. While some of the other provinces have screening programs, several were graded as “insufficient.” In Manitoba, only 10%-15% of newborns are screened for hearing loss; in Quebec, only 20%-25%; and in Alberta fewer than half.
In a statement accompanying the report card, Roula Baali, AuD, an audiologist and board member of SAC, said, “Hearing loss affects a child’s understanding and use of language. It can also affect their cognitive, social, emotional, academic, and communication development. The sooner we can detect a hearing problem, the better the chances for improvement and future success.”
PLEA TO POLITICIANS
Picard ends his article with a message to Canada’s political leaders: “Universal screening can make a real difference by preventing disability and helping children reach their full potential for learning and social interaction. It’s a plea that should not fall on politicians’ and policy-makers’ choosing-to-be-deaf ears.”
Picard’s newspaper, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, is the second most widely read in Canada, and he himself is widely respected for his dedication to improving healthcare. He was named Canada’s first “Public Health Hero” by the Canadian Public Health Association and he has received the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service. Perhaps his advocacy efforts on behalf of newborn infant screening will be rewarded.