• Remote communities rely greatly on government services. (NITV News)Source: NITV News
Ear health is one of the most pressing issues impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Literacy, education, employment, all of it comes back to the ability to hear.
Claudianna Blanco, Ross Turner

13 Sep 2016 - 6:49 PM  UPDATED 13 Sep 2016 - 6:49 PM

Research has shown too many children in remote communities don’t get the chance to hear until they are two or three years old. Chronic issues such as perforated ear drums and general ear health problems make it difficult for these children to have a real chance in life.

Dr Kelvin Kong, from the Worimi people of Port Stephens, is at the forefront of ear health research in Australia. He is participating at this year’s OMOZ 2016 conference, which provides a forum for all researchers, clinical practitioners and health workers investigating and treating chronic ear disease in Australia.

Dr Kong told NITV News ear health problems in Aboriginal communities are rife.

"Disease rates for Indigenous Australians are so high. People just don’t realise that this problem is in our own backyard."

Disease rates in Australia as a whole are below 1% of the population, but when it comes to Indigenous Australians, the rates vary between 20 and 85%. The situation is dire. According to the World Health Organisation, 4% means the problem is reaching epidemic proportions.

“The World Health Organisation classification of Australian ear health is actually kept separate to Indigenous Australians because it is so different. It’s hard to believe that in Australia, as a first world nation with some of the best hospitals and clinics in the world… disease rates for Indigenous Australians are so high. People just don’t realise that this problem is in our own backyard. It’s just appalling,” Dr Kong says.

Dr Kong explains there is a worrying trend. The frequency of prevention campaigns, early checks and interventions is slipping.

“In the old days we used to have screening of kids for ear health, but these days it just doesn’t seem to happen as much as it did when it was monitored more closely. The problem especially for Indigenous sufferers is that their history and culture is passed down through stories. So if you can’t hear, you are already at a disadvantage.

“Within the first formative years children are missing story and language development, which naturally can have a compounding effect, one that sees children falling behind other children and quickly losing education and schooling, simply because they can’t hear.”

But there is hope. This year’s OMOZ Conference aims to take a comprehensive look at current research, including all aspects of science, immunity, vaccines and interventions. Most participants are leaders in clinical practice who are working at the grass roots level to provide care and solutions.

 “We are bringing together different people with medical backgrounds and experiences to come to one place to try to come up with a plan. It is something that can be solved,” Dr Kong says.

Even though the conference will not come up with a miracle pill, it will have scientists and other medical professionals look at the problem from various angles.

“Whether it’s from a molecular or cellular level, we will have a multidisciplinary look at the problem, and it is people who are right at the coal face of the problem at this conference… There will be people from all around the country attending: from Kalgoorlie to Cairns, from surgeons to doctors.

“The easy way to think of this conference is… each person dealing with this disease is essentially banging their head against a wall, so why don’t we all get in the same room and bang our heads against the walls together? Hopefully by doing this collectively we can come up with a way to move forward so that we can push toward a national framework that works in treating ear disease.”

    Hearing Awareness Week - otitis media
    Dr Kelvin Kong helps us to understand what to do and how to look after our ears for Hearing Awareness Week.