Guest Post – Takes two ears to hear

Regular reader Sym emails a guest post:

I should point out that the group is not a bunch of whiny takers. All of us have stumped up one way or another and got our own kids a second cochlear implant. We are also proposing parents contribute approximately $90 a fortnight towards the ongoing costs. However it is common sense when an approach is better, cheaper and safer to choose that approach.

If you want to do some background reading, check out our website www.2ears2hear.kiwi.nz

Here is his Guest Post.

Do you know what a cochlear implant is? Most people don’t. There are less than 1,000 people in New Zealand with them. Lance Cairns is perhaps the highest profile New Zealander with one.

A cochlear implant is an electronic device that allows a person with complete hearing loss to hear. It bypasses everything and essentially plugs right into the auditory nerve. You can think of it as a super-sophisticated hearing aid – but it really is a whole another paradigm in hearing technology.

Cochlear implants cost about $50,000 each. In New Zealand about 40 kids get them a year. There are about 350 under 18 year olds with them.

The NZ government currently funds one cochlear implant for a child. They argue that one is enough to develop language and there isn’t enough money to fund two. A group of parents, campaigning under the banner of 2ears2hear, say they are wrong. We say people, particularly young children, need two ears to hear and that it is incredibly short sighted not to do the job properly.

In the UK a three-year study of every cochlear implant user has found that children with two cochlear implants develop their language at a similar pace and to a similar level as normal hearing children, after one year of catch up. After three years, children with one cochlear implant were significantly behind and not showing any sign of catching up. Other research projects, although smaller, show similar results. In short, the research shows a child with one cochlear implant is going to really struggle and probably not reach their full potential.

In New Zealand children with hearing loss receive a reasonable amount of support in their educational settings. While it’s a bit hard to pin down, it appears that each child can attract between $30,000 and $50,000 of support per year. A child identified at birth through Universal New Born Hearing Screening, who receives two cochlear implants at 6 months old and receives a good burst of therapy will in most cases be completely caught up by the time they hit school and require no in-class support. A child with one cochlear implant will likely need support all through their schooling. Even at the lower figure of $30,000 per year, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that only doing one cochlear implant is uneconomic.

Cochlear implants are electronic devices. Like all electronics a small number of them fail for various reasons. About 1.2% of devices fail after 7 years – or in the NZ context, about 12 in the course of 7 years. For a child with one cochlear implant – let’s say a 2 year old – having their hearing just stop one day will be incredibly traumatic. It will take roughly 6 weeks to get any hearing back due to the need for scars to heal after re-implantation. Then it will likely take another 3 months to get their hearing back to where it was. If the child was at school, that’s close to two terms of schooling disrupted. In other critical contexts we expect to have redundancy or backup systems in place.  But for something as critical as a child’s hearing we are currently happy to load all our proverbial eggs in one basket.

Those are three reasons why the current policy and funding in New Zealand is wrong. Most comparable countries – Canada, UK, Australia, Japan, US, France, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Argentina, Poland (to name a few) – mandate and/or fund two cochlear implants for children.

An obvious question is why don’t parents just stump up for a second? Well about 30% of parents do. Many parents put huge efforts into fundraising. Many communities rally around and provide amazing support. Others land it on the mortgage or have families who can help. Whatever approach, it is incredibly stressful trying to find $50,000 at the same time as you may be starting a family, probably dropping a parent’s income and having to deal with a truckload of engagement with medical folk. Not many parents have a spare $50,000 tucked away – just in case – when they start a family? As for health insurance – it explicitly doesn’t cover cochlear implants.

For six families in New Zealand, the picture is even darker. They have two children with cochlear implants. They face finding $100,000.

The 2ears2hear group of parents is made up of mostly families who have stumped up for the second ear. We want to see the approximately 200 kids in New Zealand with one cochlear implant get two. Most of all, we want to see the very young babies who need cochlear implants to hear get put through only one operation and get the job done properly – by getting two cochlear implants in one surgery. The real kicker in all of this is that it only costs $36,000 to do the second ear if it is done in the same operation.

About the author: Sym Gardiner has a six year old daughter who has profound bilateral hearing loss. She was simultaneously implanted just before she turned two years old. Sym is the editor of 2ears2hear.kiwi.nz. He is active in promoting the availability of bilateral implants for children in New Zealand. He is a contributor to the Cochlear Implant kids community in the Wellington region and the national Cochlear Implant community. 

About the petition: We have started a petition to get this issue on the priority list for the Ministry of Health. http://goo.gl/pm9zX Don’t let the fact it’s housed on a ‘water-melon’ server put you off. They are quite good at running such things.


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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

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