Giving ear to a growing problem

By Smriti Daniel

It's a first for a local university. With its bright blue, soundproofed interiors, the Kelaniya Medical Faculty's audiology lab in Ragama is already being put to heavy use by the thirty odd students who make up the first batch in the university's newest offering - a BSc in Audiology.

Of more interest though is the university's commitment to providing approximately 900 hearing aids to those in need, free of charge. The lab has only been functional for a month and a half, and already 82 people have been fitted with hearing aids, says Ruvini Athukorala, lecturer in speech language therapy and audiology at the university.

The lab houses a machine that is used for Pure Tone Audiometry testing - meant to measure the degree of an individual's hearing loss. A wall divides the little room in two, while a glass window allows the person administering the test to see the subject on the other side. The person being tested is required to wear a pair of headphones and indicate he or she has heard the machine generated tone by raising his or her hand. The limitation of the test is, of course, that it cannot be administered to very young children.

Explaining that all the equipment and the sound proofed laboratory were donated by Sunflower Village, Mrs. Athukorala says that their ultimate goal is to extend the project so that it reaches victims of the war in the north and east of the country. Currently, the lab does see patients from places like Trincomalee, where bomb and gun fire related injuries have taken a severe toll. Still, most of the lab's patients are made up of congenital cases - those with hearing difficulties that have been with them from birth - and the elderly.

According to their results, subjects are grouped under three types of hearing loss, says Mrs. Athukorala - Conductive Hearing Loss, Sensorineural Hearing Loss and Mixed Hearing Loss. Conductive hearing loss is the result of disorders in either the outer or middle ear, which prevent sound from getting to the inner ear. Sensorineural Hearing Loss on the other hand is caused by damage to the inner ear nerves which then cannot properly transmit their signals to the brain - most commonly seen in the elderly. Mixed Hearing Loss combines elements of both. Depending on the diagnosis, Mrs. Athukorala and her team must decide if a hearing aid will help a patient.

Hearing aids are expensive. Those known as BTE or Behind The Ear hearing aids costing around of Rs. 20,000 are inconspicuous, causing the wearer less embarrassment than the clunkier (but cheaper) Body-Worn hearing aids. Both types are being distributed by the audiology lab. In an adjoining room, the team also creates the moulds that are custom-made to fit into the ears of patients. Neither of these instruments will restore hearing that has been completely lost, instead they serve as amplification devices, emphasises Mrs. Athukorala.

Those interested in finding out more can contact the lab on 2958251.

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