New initiative is jointly funded by the NT and federal governments, based on research from the Menzies School of Health Research.

New initiative is jointly funded by the NT and federal governments, based on research from the Menzies School of Health Research. Andrew Sadauskas reports.

Neil Balnaves.

The Balnaves Foundation has partnered with the Northern Territory and federal governments on a new five-year initiative initiative that aims to address chronic hearing problems among children in Aboriginal communities.

Currently, around 90% of Aboriginal children under the age of three in the Northern Territory have ear disease, which can potentially adversely affect learning outcomes and lead to entrenched economic disadvantage.

However, prompt diagnosis and optimal treatment in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life can treat the disease and vastly improve learning outcomes.

The new Hearing for Learning Initiative aims to address the issue by upskilling community members to support health and education services on the ground. This can cut treatment waiting periods by reducing the need for fly-in fly-out specialists.

The new initiative is based on scientific studies by the Menzies School of Health Research and is co-led by ear, nose and throat specialist Dr Kelvin Kong, who is Australia’s first Indigenous surgeon.

Menzies School of Health Research director Alan Cass said, “Hearing is essential for strong early childhood development and chronic hearing problems in children cause education difficulties leading to entrenched disadvantage”.

“The Hearing for Learning Initiative is a ground-breaking four-year investment combining public and private funding to solve this serious health and education problem,” Cass said.

Along with $2.5 million in funding from The Balnaves Foundation, the project has received $2.4 million from the NT government and a further $3 million from the federal government.

The project will begin in four remote communities and will eventually be rolled out across 20 communities, employing 40 locally-supported community-based workers. The initiative is expected to reach 5,000 children with a focus on children under three.

The Balnaves Foundation’s founder Neil Balnaves said he believes more should be done to assist children with hearing loss in Indigenous communities, and the next step is to support the community to deliver a solution.

“When we learned about the chronic nature of ear disease in children living in remote communities in the Northern Territory, we could not ignore the fact that this likely leads to profound disadvantage in health, education and employment outcomes,” Balnaves said.

“Philanthropy plays a unique role in recognising and piloting new approaches, however, it requires partnership with government to deliver these approaches at scale.

“The government is to be applauded for putting this unique partnership together to solve what has now become a serious epidemic.”

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