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Infant Hearing Screenings Rise; Goal of 100% Is Still Far Off

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A nationwide effort that began just four years ago to have all infants screened for hearing defects is fast approaching its goal of testing all newborn babies. But leaders of the movement fear that any letdown in commitment will cause the USA to fall short of its 100% target.

The percentage of American babies screened for hearing loss rose nearly 18 percentage points in the past year, from 69% to 86.5%, according to a report out today.

The National Campaign for Hearing Health's report attributes much of the improvement to the efforts of larger states such as New York, where some 254,000 babies are born annually. Rated ''unsatisfactory'' last year, its percentage screened went from 17% in 2002 to 95% in 2003, earning it an ''excellent'' rating.

Forty states earned that distinction, given for a screening rate higher than 90%. Last year, 14 states reached that mark.

According to the organization, about 12,000 babies are born with hearing loss annually, making it the No. 1 birth defect, ahead of congenital heart defects and cleft lip/palate.

The campaign, started by the Deafness Research Foundation in 1999, works to promote hearing health awareness and legislation that enforces mandatory testing at birth.

Despite the marked improvements, advocates are hardly claiming victory. For the minimal cost -- about $20 to $30 -- and amount of time and effort screening takes, the fact that 100% of babies are not screened is baffling, they say.

''This progress in screening, while wonderful, is not complete, and screening is just the beginning,'' says Louis Cooper, immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a professor at Columbia University.

If problems are detected in the first weeks of life, new audiology devices and training can allow children to develop speech skills at a pace comparable to that for children without the hearing problems, researchers say.

Without proper auditory training after a diagnosis is made, screening is all for naught, Cooper says.

And even as 100% screening nears realization, procuring federal funds for these programs remains an annual battle, say hearing advocates. President Bush's proposed fiscal year 2004 budget does not include funds for screening programs.

In the past three years, the effort has averaged about $9.5 million a year in federal funds, after garnering $3.5 million in 2000, and nothing in 1999.

Currently, 38 states and the District of Columbia have screening laws. Of those states, only California, New Hampshire and Ohio rated ''unsatisfactory'' for screening rates lower than 79%. Ohio has received the lowest rating four years in a row.

Along with funding, the final push toward universal screening will require a grass-roots informational campaign.

Says Susan Greco, executive director of the Deafness Research Foundation: ''We have the technology, it's inexpensive. Now it's just a matter of awareness.''

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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