Glue Ear

Reporter: Mark Gibson

Leading childhood ear, nose and throat specialist - Professor Harvey Coates - fights a modern plague, one operation at a time. Glue ear. It can lead to deafness and it affects thousands of Australian children. Many parents have no idea their kids are suffering in silence.

Glue ear starts with an infection in the middle ear - usually after a cold.

If it continues, fluid builds up and eventually thickens like glue which muffles sound, causing severe hearing loss.

Left long enough, it can damage the ear drum, and threaten permanent deafness. Professor Coats says "If adults have glue ear they want grommets within a week but if children have this they tolerate it for months and sometimes years." Grommets are tiny plastic tubes. "If we insert a grommet into the ear drum it ventilates the middle ear and we end up with a child who has normal hearing."

Here, Professor Coates surgically implants a grommet into the ear drum of six year old Lucia Bolingbroke. Unlike babies and toddlers who can't tell parents there's a problem, Lucia was able to tell her mum Victoria something was wrong. And like so many glue ear kids, Lucia's problems involved more than just hearing loss.

Children with the condition struggle at school, feel isolated and frustrated. Often they are aggressive and misbehave and become a real handful for teachers and parents. And if a child has the condition long enough, they won't even know they have a problem, and won't complain, leaving parents baffled.

Professor Coates says glue ear can go undiagnosed for so long as some children learn to compensate, fooling everyone that they can hear, "the intelligent child will be able to pick up visual clues - they can lip read."

Six year old Angus Bloxham is another of Professor Coates' patients having grommets put in. Like Luica, Angus is also having his adenoids removed at the same time. Removing adenoids can reduce the incidence of ear infection and glue ear.

The surgery is about half an hour and breathing and sleeping are instantly improved.

It not only changes lives, it saves them too.

One of Professor Coates' patients died, just a week before they were due to have the procedure. "A child according to the parents walked out in front of a car because it couldn't hear the car from behind and was hit and unfortunately didn't survive." But, overwhelmingly, it's a case of relief and joy and for parents often unaware of their child's suffering, extremely emotional. "The child suddenly looked up at the parents and said 'mum, dad I can hear a bird' and then suddenly both parents looked at each other and burst into tears - they suddenly twigged that their child had not heard these subtle background sounds for a long time."

Back home now, Lucia is a new little girl. Victoria says "she's calm now, she's not waking up in the middle of the night - she's her happy little self and she hasn't complained about her ears."

A simple hearing test can determine if your child has a problem.

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