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High rates of ear infections or 'otitis media' in Aboriginal communities contribute significantly to social disadvantage and impact on children's capacity to learn. Some studies have found up to 94% of Aboriginal inmates in some prisons have hearing impairment.
Ear, nose and throat surgeon, Associate Professor Kelvin Kong travels to Aboriginal communities around New South Wales, treating children who have chronic otitis media. ‘In our Aboriginal population that rate is over 60%,' he said. ‘In some of the smaller communities that I visit, you're talking about 85 - 95 percent of people with perforated eardrums.'
For Indigenous people ear infections routinely continue through adolescence and into adulthood. Poor school grades caused by poor hearing can lead to unemployment, poverty and often an encounter with the criminal justice system.
There have been three recent studies into hearing loss among Indigenous prisoners in Australian jails. A 2006 study in the State of Victoria found that 78% of Indigenous prisoners aged 17-20 years had hearing so poor it corresponded with the bottom 10% in society. An unpublished 2010 survey by an audiologist at Bandyup Women's Prison in Perth revealed that 46% of Indigenous inmates had significant hearing loss.
In 2012, the acting superintendent of Darwin prison instigated a study of Northern Territory jails, which found up to 94% of Aboriginal inmates suffered significant hearing loss. The report attributed this hearing loss to ear disease the prisoners had contracted as children.
Once imprisoned, Aboriginal inmates with hearing loss feel greater hardship and isolation than other prisoners. Many have difficulty hearing the instructions of correctional officers, the Darwin study found. Australia imprisons Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at a rate 15 times the general population, yet the country has not fully investigated the reasons why.
Most Australian states have not surveyed the extent of hearing loss among the Indigenous inmates in their custody. New South Wales holds the most Indigenous prisoners but doesn't keep reliable statistics on the extent of hearing loss. It is not known how many Aboriginal people in Australia are suffering hearing loss as a result of otitis media.
In response to low Indigenous attendance at the John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle, Professor Kong, moved one of the clinics away from the hospital grounds, and is now holding it at the community controlled Aboriginal Medical Centre. The move resulted in a dramatic surge in attendance.
‘They now have a clinic which is run by the hospital, so it's still a hospital clinic, but it's run in the community,' Kong said. ‘Now, the attendance rate is 98%. We get inundated with more patients than there are places.'
Kong is calling for a centre for Indigenous ear excellence to be established to bring together the best minds in research, clinical practice and education, with the aim of eradicating ear disease from the Indigenous population.
Source: Lester Ranby and The Stringer