The doctor is listening

03/10/2019 - 15:46

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A WA researcher has been recognised for his research into the long-term complications of a common middle-ear infection in children.

Chris Brennan-Jones says glue ear can have devastating long-term impacts on children if left untreated. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

A WA researcher has been recognised for his research into the long-term complications of a common middle-ear infection in children.

A common malaise it may be, but a head cold isn’t much fun for anyone.

As annoying as a cold can be for adults, however, the virus poses added complications for children who at risk of developing a condition referred to as glue ear, where a build-up of fluid behind the eardrum becomes trapped and thickens.

“Adults can pop their ears and blow their noses, whereas kids can’t do that as well,” said Chris Brennan-Jones, a senior research fellow with the Telethon Kids Institute’s ear health research team.

“Anatomically, we have a Eustachian tube to drain fluid away from the ear, but it’s horizontal in children; it doesn’t go to a 45-degree angle until about eight or nine years of age.”

Dr Brennan-Jones explained that when children can’t properly drain or ‘pop’ their ears, that fluid can become stuck, becoming thicker and stickier and creating serious health complications.

Dr Brennan-Jones won a Young Tall Poppy Science Award this past month for his research and work on glue ear, which goes by the medical term of otitis media.

Run by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science since 1998, the awards aim to bring attention to young scientists with exceptional communication skills whose work has had a broad impact on the community.

Working with TKI's ear health research team, Dr Brennan-Jones has dedicated his career to studying how best to treat glue ear in children.

Work on the subject was important, he said, as the symptoms and complications of glue ear were often difficult for parents to see, and could cause severe hearing impairments if left untreated.

“Children might not be pulling at their ears, screaming or have a fever, so it’s very hard to spot as a parent,” Dr Brennan-Jones said.

“With hearing loss, the children aren’t deaf, they’re just not hearing as well as they could.

“Kids miss out on subtle things to start with, but it affects their interactions with other kids and parents, as well as their language, communication and education.

“There are a whole lot of flow-on effects for their mental health, behaviour and opportunities later in life, so we wanted to know the scale of the problem, break the cycle and treat the disease early.”

While breastfeeding and a complete vaccination schedule can help prevent glue ear, there currently is no single cure for the affliction.

Further, Dr Brennan-Jones explained that due to the number of referrals and the fact that glue ear doesn’t present with obvious symptoms, it can take some parents years to see a specialist for an opinion.

That’s a problem, he said, because glue ear required urgent attention to prevent long-term hearing loss.

As a result, Dr Brennan-Jones has helped pilot telehealth services to connect parents to specialists at Perth Children’s Hospital for advice and possible treatment, increasing early intervention for children suffering from middle ear infections.

“By providing a telehealth service, instead of kids waiting years to see a specialist, they will get an opinion within four weeks,” he said.

“That’ll have a massive impact on their access to care.”

Dr Brennan-Jones explained that though it was common for children to develop ear infections before 12 months of age, Aboriginal children were at significant risk of developing glue ear, with one in two Aboriginal infants likely to develop a significant ear infection before six months of age.

Working with the Urban Aboriginal Ear Health program, Dr Brennan-Jones and the team are aiming to reduce the number of Aboriginal children with severe middle ear infections.

“We’ve known it’s a big issue, but we didn’t know how big, and we’ve always thought it was an issue for Aboriginal kids in remote communities,” he said.

With telehealth services led by Aboriginal workers in south metropolitan Perth, Dr Brennan-Jones said he hoped the program would reduce the rate of middle ear infections in Aboriginal children.

“It’s going to be coordinated by Aboriginal health workers who have followed them throughout all their assessments,” he said.

“Culturally, it has that relevance and security to them that while they’re liaising with hospitals, they’re doing it with the support of local Aboriginal people they know.

“That’s important for providing safe access to care and make parents feel comfortable.”

 


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