20 years of cochlear implantation in the Philippines: Deaf kids become productive

ORLIAC 2018, or the International Academic Conference in Otology, Rhinology and Laryngology, is being held from, March 1 to 3 at Fairmont Makati. In attendance in this 10th edition of the highly scientific program are expert doctors—otologists, neurologists and laryngologists—from all over the world to discuss the best practices, clinical studies and specializations in their fields of expertise. The medical experts are also expected to share their experiences and look into collaborations in the near future. Leading the Philippine team is Dr. Charlotte Chiong, director of the Newborn Hearing Screening Reference Center (NHSRC) based at the University of the Philippines Manila National Institutes of Health (UPM-NIH).

Chiong will have a special lecture on the “Universal Newborn Hearing Screening in the Philippines,” to be followed by the keynote address of Sen. Loren Legarda on “Legislation on Hearing Health Care in the Philippines.”

Available record shows that one deaf baby is born every three hours in the country. “We did our research with a good data to back it up, there’s 1.74 per a thousand babies—eightprofound deaf babies—born every day in the Philippines. That’s a staggering number. Yes, based on a study we’ve conducted, at least eight profoundly hearing deaf babies are born every day, that’s one deaf baby born every three hours,” explained Chiong, who is also the UP Manila’s Vice chancellor for planning and development.

Hearing disorders among infants, she said, need timely and appropriate interventions and can be diagnosed through a simple hearing test. Republic Act 9709, or the “Act that establishes the Universal Newborn Hearing Screening for the Prevention, Early Diagnosis, and Intervention of Hearing Loss,” provides for the mandatory hearing screening of all Filipino newborns. Hearing loss at birth is called congenital hearing loss caused by genetic factors, but can also be caused by other things, like an infection during pregnancy, prematurity, injury at birth, and other health conditions. Congenital nerve deafness is a defect of the auditory nerve in the cochlea and may be present at birth or acquired during or soon after birth. Usually both inner ears are affected to a similar degree, and there is a severe impairment of hearing, although in some cases of congenital nerve loss the impairment can be moderate.

Cochlear implantation in the Philippines

“It was in 1997 that I met the late Georg Mueller [who was responsible for bringing Hochmair’s Medical Electronics (MED-EL) in the Philippines]. I believe it was a serendipitous encounter,” Chiong related.

MED-EL Philippines is the exclusive distributor of the very first microelectronic multichannel cochlear implant. “From introducing cochlear implantation through MED-EL in the country in 1997, from there we’ve pushed for hearing screening. Of the nearly 300 implantation cases I had done in 20 years, it was noted that the cause of deafness in 50 percent of the cases were preventable, 32 percent with rubella, while others had meningitis, infection, otitis media and ototoxicity. If we increase awareness on hearing loss, deafness and screening, 50 percent of such cases can be prevented by immunization or other primary preventive measures. Of the remaining 50 percent, only few cases, with timely intervention, would need cochlear implants because they can no longer be helped by hearing aids.

“We will have more productive people with better hearing health if we are able to decrease the prevalence of deafness among Filipinos,” Chiong concluded.

In the Philippines, current available statistics approximates 28 percent of the population, or roughly a total of 26 million Filipinos, have hearing loss. 8.8 percent of which, or a total of 2.3 million, are hearing-disabled—meaning they are possible candidates for cochlear implant.

There are more than 600 cochlear implant users mostly kids in the country today. The high cost of cochlear implantation, which reaches about P1.2 million, which includes the implant, doctor’s surgical fees and therapy fees, is difficult to achieve, especially with the economic conditions in the country. The goal of the government to address the problem of hearing health remains to be a dream to a lot of Filipino families, especially the underprivileged. The job is too great to handle singlehandedly, thus, there is a need to collaborate with private agencies that are truly concerned with helping the hearing-impaired.

Inspired by the works of the late German national Georg Mueller, touted as Father of Cochlear Implantation in the Philippines, the idea of organizing a foundation to support cochlear-implant patients with efficient and personalized partnership was visualized. A foundation that will fight for the rights and needs of the hearing impaired, whose only hope to hear and speak is through cochlear implantation will carry on Georg’s legacy – the HearLife Foundation, Inc. (HLFI)—was recently organized.

Georg was designated by Drs. Ingeborg and Erwin Hochmair, inventors/proprietors of MED-EL, Innsbruck, Austria, to establish and Head the MED-EL Asia-Pacific regional headquarters in Alabang, Muntinlupa, Philippines, in the year 1997.  With his Filipina wife Maribel as his “personal associate,” the couple worked together to provide opportunities for children with deafness to get back their hearing to enjoy the sounds around them and communicate with everyone just like anybody else.

“Originally, Hong Kong was supposed to be where MED-EL planned to build its headquarter in Asia. Being a Filipino and seeing the need of our kababayans, I fought to have it here in the Philippines,” Maribel shared.

MED-EL celebrates 20th year in the Philippines

These events have inspired Maribel, who is currently the country manager of MED-EL Philippines and special project manager at MED-EL Innsbruck, Austria, to the HLFI, which had a soft launch in December 2016.

HLFI’s goal is to support the hearing-impaired individuals for their opportunities to listen and speak by bringing this innovative hearing solution and through individualized speech and language services within their means and thereby experience the world of hearing.

Gracing MED-EL Philippines’ 20th year are the Hochmairs. Erwin last came to the country for the 10th year, while Ingeborg was here for the 15th. The Hochmairs developed the very first microelectronic multichannel cochlear implant, implanted in December 1957 in Vienna, while the first implant in the Philippines was done in 1997.

Today MED-EL is a leading hearing-implant company, with 30 subsidiaries worldwide and more than 1900 employees. With its innovative technologies, MED-EL helps individuals to overcome hearing loss and to restore other body functions that are a barrier to communication and impair the quality of life.

In the Philippines HFLI hopes to partner with the government and private agencies as it vows to continuously help and support the hearing-impaired individuals until they reach their full potential and become productive and valuable members of the society. And it can be done through education and information dissemination and generous support of donors.

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