The initiative aims to ensure universal ear care for every Bhutanese child through the Hear, Listen and Speak program
In a new initiative of the country’s first earmold laboratory established at the national referral hospital (JDWNRH) in Thimphu, hearing difficulties in children 0-14 years of age could be prevented through early detection.
The earmold lab was launched by the Ministry of Health (MoH) in collaboration with UN Technology Bank, Medtronic Labs, GNR resounds, MEDEL, and the Austrian Development Agency (ADA) on 11 August.
The intervention, designed to provide sustainable ear and hearing care services for children, is expected to help ensure children with hearing difficulties can listen and speak and reach their full potential.
The initiative is also to address gaps in the ear and hearing care for hearing loss and those with ear disorders in line with the government’s commitment to “narrow the gap” in service provision for people living with disabilities in the country.
Health minister Dasho Dechen Wangmo said that the program is in line with the global agenda of living no one behind. “We hope that we will have more detection of such issues and be able to provide early interventions so that we can help all our children who are living with disabilities, especially hearing loss,” she said.
“Visual and hearing impairment in the country accounts for almost 1.6 percent of the oral disability of 2.2 percent,” Lyonpo said, adding that the health ministry targeted to address these two common disabilities following the approval of the National Disability Policy in 2019.
With the screening of 99.4 percent of children across the country under the visual impairment program and provided eyeglasses, she said, it gives a lot of confidence that the delivery of hearing screening will be a shining program, not just for Bhutan but also for the region.
In addition, Lyonpo said that the government and the health workers are committed to addressing these problems. “Through this hear, listen and speak program, we will be tackling the second biggest disability,” she added.
Given that the economically challenged people may not be able to come to Thimphu to avail themselves of the services, similar labs would be expanded in the two regional hospitals.
The Head of the Department of ENT and Head and Neck Surgery at the JDWNRH, Dr. Phub Tshering said that the program is a complete package from screening to intervention.
“From 2018, we have been screening high-risk children. We screen the baby on day one even in the maternity wards,” he said. “But through this project, we want to make it universal screening to all newborn babies.”
The health ministry’s officiating public health director, Rixin Jamtsho, said that the disability program in the past has remained almost idle due to frequent changes in the program officers, lack of mentorship, inadequate budgetary support, late identification of the hearing issues due to lack of screening technology and shortage of expertise.
These challenges, he said, have hampered to effectively implement the strategies and action plans, the availability and accessibility of the disabilities remain difficult for the people, low community awareness of hearing loss and hearing disorders, and late identification and diagnosis of hearing problems.
However, he said, now the program has made significant achievements in the first phase of implementing hear, listen, and speaking program with the support of consultants and implementing partners.
“We are looking forward to much more development in a sustainable manner. Sustainability and continuity of the program have been well discussed,” he said, adding that all the development and implementing partners and other stakeholders have committed to support.
Rixin Jamtsho said that about 15,878 Bhutanese people live with some form of disability and the overall prevalence of any disability in children aged two to 9 years old in the country is 21.3 percent which is quite concerning. “This translates to 1 in every 5 children living with disability in the country.”
Meanwhile, the health ministry estimates that 2.2 percent of the population in the country has some form of hearing disorder. Hearing impairment in children is detrimental to the optimal growth and development of a healthy child.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that hearing loss affects 32 million children worldwide and 60 percent of pediatric hearing loss could be prevented through early detection and the robust implementation of public health measures, along with the timely provision of diagnosis and treatment services.
The ministry encourages all inter-sectoral partners to support this ear and hearing care initiative that will transform the lives of Bhutanese children with hearing loss.