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There are three main parts of the ear (external, middle and inner ear) and diseases of the ear are classified according to the part where the disorder occurs . Inflammation and infection of the middle ear, which are nearly always associated with fluid in the middle ear space, are referred to as otitis media (OM) .
OM can be caused by viruses or bacteria or both, and often occurs as a result of another illness such as a cold . It can cause intermittent or persistent hearing impairment and the risk of permanent hearing loss increases if OM becomes chronic and is not adequately treated and followed up. Persistent ear discharge through a perforation (hole) in the tympanic membrane (eardrum) is referred to as chronic suppurative otitis media (CSOM) . For a diagnosis of CSOM, the tympanic membrane perforation must be able to be seen and large enough to allow the discharge to flow out of the middle ear space.
The level of ear disease and hearing loss among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remains higher than for the general Australian population, particularly among children and young adults .
OM, particularly in suppurative forms, is associated with impairment of hearing, with major implications for language development and learning . OM can affect Indigenous babies within weeks of birth and a high proportion of children living in remote communities will continue to suffer from CSOM throughout their developmental years .
Exceptionally high levels of ear disease and hearing loss have been reported for many years in many Indigenous communities, particularly in remote areas . The levels described among children living in some remote communities in northern and central Australia are such that they would be classified by the WHO as being ‘a massive public health problem’ requiring ‘urgent attention’ (, p.2).
Diseases of the ear and mastoid and/or hearing problems were reported as a long-term health condition by 12% of Indigenous people who participated in the 2012-2013 AATSIHS . Ear/hearing problems were reported by the same proportion of Indigenous people in non-remote areas and remote areas (both 12%). Ear/hearing problems were reported by 13% of Indigenous males and by 12% of Indigenous females. After age-adjustment, there were statistically significant differences between rate ratios for Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people for ear and mastoid and/or hearing problems (rate ratio 1.3: rate ratio of 1.2 for males and a rate ratio 1.5 for females), and in all age-groups under 55 years.
The proportion of Indigenous people with ear/hearing problems increased with age, ranging from 7% of Indigenous children aged 0-14 years, to 28% of those aged 55 years and over . The same proportions of Indigenous children aged 0-14 years were reported to have hearing loss (3%) and OM (3%). Hearing loss was the most commonly reported ear/hearing problem in all other age-groups, affecting between 7% of Indigenous people aged 15-24 years and 26% of those aged 55 years and over.
Hearing health services delivered under the National partnership agreement on stronger futures in the Northern Territory in 2012-13 provided audiology services to 1,541 Indigenous children: 72% of children who received audiology services were diagnosed with at least one type of middle ear condition . The most common condition among the Indigenous children was otitis media with effusion (OME) (25%) followed by Eustachian tube dysfunction (17%), CSOM (13%), dry perforation (12%), and acute OM (AOM) (8%). Of the children who received audiology services 51% had some form of hearing loss: 36% had bilateral hearing loss; 15% had loss in one ear; and around 10% had moderate, severe or profound hearing impairment.
The NT Emergency Response (NTER) child health checks conducted in the period from July 2007 to June 2012 found that 67% of the 5,474 children who received ear, nose and throat (ENT) consultations or audiology services had at least one middle ear condition . More than one-half (51%) of the 5,184 children aged under 16 years who received an audiology check had hearing loss in at least one ear.
The 2008 NATSISS, which collected information on total/partial deafness, OM, ringing in ears (tinnitus), and otitis externa (infection of the ear canal), found that 10% of Indigenous children aged 4-14 years experienced an ear or hearing problem .
Information collected by the WAACHS in 2001-2002 revealed that 18% of Indigenous children aged 0-17 years were reported by carers as having had recurring ear infections . Children aged 0-3 years (20%) and 4-11 years (20%) were more likely to have recurring ear infections than children aged 12-17 years (14%). Abnormal hearing was reported for 6.8% of the children aged 4-17 years. Of children aged 4-11 years who experienced recurring ear infections with discharge, 28% had abnormal hearing, compared with 1.4% of those without ear infections.
According to Bettering the evaluation of care and health (BEACH) survey data, the rates of GP attendances for the period from April 2006 to March 2011 for Indigenous children aged 0-14 years were 1.1 times the non-Indigenous rate for OM/myringitis (inflammation of the tympanic membrane) and 1.2 times the non-Indigenous rate for total diseases of the ear .
In 2012-13, there were 2,762 hospital separations for diseases of the ear and mastoid process (portion of the temporal bone of the skull behind the ear) among Indigenous people . The hospitalisation rate for Indigenous children aged 0-3 years was 9.2 per 1,000, slightly lower, 0.8 times, than the rate for non-Indigenous children (12.0 per 1,000) . Rates for Indigenous children aged 4-14 years (7.1 per 1,000) were 1.6 times higher than for non-Indigenous children (4.4 per 1,000). In major cities, hospitalisation rates for Indigenous children aged 0-14 years (5.9 per 1,000) were lower than rates for non-Indigenous children (6.7 per 1,000). In remote and very remote areas, the hospitalisation rate for Indigenous children aged 0-14 years (15.6 per 1,000) was twice as high as the rate for non-Indigenous children (7.3 per 1,000).
As with many other areas of Indigenous health, high rates of recurring ear infections are associated with poverty, crowded housing conditions, inadequate access to clean water and functional sewerage systems, nutritional problems, and poor access to health care . Importantly, ear infections can lead to hearing loss, which may be a major contributor to poor education and to unemployment, which are risk factors for contact with the justice system .