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Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin
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spacing1What do we know about ear health among Indigenous people?

What is ear health?

Ear health is very important for hearing, learning and balance [1]. If ears get damaged, people might:

There are a number of ear diseases, but the most common is called otitis media (OM) [1]. OM is an ear disease where the middle ear is affected by infection from bacteria or viruses. OM can be very painful and sometimes damages the ear drum and fluid can leak from the ear (known as 'runny ear'). In another type of OM, fluid builds up in the middle ear without damaging the ear drum ('glue ear'). Both types of OM can cause hearing loss. Ear disease is associated with people living in crowded homes (particularly with people who smoke), living in poor conditions, or having poor hygiene. Children who go to day-care centres are often more likely than others to get ear infections.

What do we know about ear health among Indigenous people?

The 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) found that one-in-ten Indigenous children had ear or hearing problems [2]. In the 2004-2005 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS), ear/hearing problems were reported by one-in-eight Indigenous people (which was the same as for non-Indigenous people) [3].

Indigenous people, especially children and young adults, have more ear disease and hearing loss than do other Australians [1][4].
The 2004-2005 NATSIHS reported that OM was much more common for children than adults, and it was more common for Indigenous children than for non-Indigenous children [3]. OM was more common for Indigenous people living in remote areas (4%) than for those living in non-remote areas (2%). Indigenous people were three times more likely than non-Indigenous people to have had OM as a long-term health condition.

The 2004-2005 NATSIHS found that almost one-in-ten Indigenous people were partially or completely deaf [3]. Partial or complete deafness was more likely to affect Indigenous people than non-Indigenous people aged less than 55 years, but the rates were similar for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people aged 55 years and older.

The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey (WAACHS) found that almost one-in-five Indigenous children had recurring ear infections (ear infections that keep coming back) [5]. Young children (0-11 years) were more likely to have recurring ear infections than were older children (12-17 years). Hearing that wasn't normal was reported by their carers for 7% of Indigenous children. There is a strong link between recurring ear infections and abnormal hearing: 28% of children who had recurring ear infections with discharge (runny ears) also had abnormal hearing, compared with 1% of those without ear infections.

In the NT in 2007-2012, two-out-of-three Indigenous children who had child health checks with an ear, nose and throat examination had at least one middle ear condition [6]. For Indigenous children who had a follow-up hearing test, more than one-half had hearing loss in at least one ear.


  1. Burrow S, Thomson N (2003) Ear disease and hearing loss. In: Thomson N, ed. The health of Indigenous Australians. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press: 247-272
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social survey, 2008. Retrieved 11 April 2011 from
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2006) National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey: Australia, 2004-05. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics
  4. Couzos S, Metcalf S, Murray R (2008) Ear health. In: Couzos S, Murray R, eds. Aboriginal primary health care: an evidence-based approach. 3rd ed. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press: 308-354
  5. Zubrick SR, Lawrence DM, Silburn SR, Blair E, Milroy H, Wilkes T, Eades S, D'Antoine H, Read AW, Ishiguchi P, Doyle S (2004) The health of Aboriginal children and young people [volumes 1-4]. Perth: Telethon Institute for Child Health Research
  6. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2012) Northern Territory emergency response child health check initiative - follow-up services for oral and ear health: final report 2007-2012. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
Last updated: 10 April 2013
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