BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei will begin offering cochlear implants this year, with surgeries for children being performed locally for the first time. 

The implants will potentially restore hearing for scores of children who suffer from profound hearing loss.

Previously the government would pay to send patients abroad for the procedure, which can now be carried out at RIPAS Hospital’s ear, nose and throat specialist clinic, in collaboration with auditory implant experts from the region.

However, many parents lack awareness of cochlear implants, said the hospital’s head of Otorhinolaryngology, Dr Fakhruddin Pehin Orang Kaya Paduka Seri Utama Dato Paduka Seri Setia Hj Salim. 

“If you do the [surgery] before the child is one-year-old, the chances of them having speech equivalent to their peers is higher compared to when you do it later.

“If the child is 10, he or she may only have the equivalent speech of a six or seven-year-old,” he told The Scoop on the sidelines of the Auditory Implant Forum on Sunday.

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Dr Fakhruddin said so far 20 children have been identified as potential candidates for cochlear implants.

A cochlear implant is an electronic medical device that does the work of damaged parts of the inner ear (cochlea) to provide sound signals to the brain.

The accepted age range to perform the implant surgery is in children aged three to four-years-old, but studies show that surgeries done in younger children will have better outcomes. 

The specialist added that there is still a lot of fear around performing the surgery on young patients, with a greater emphasis needed on counseling and addressing parental fears.

“The success of the programme on the whole is highly dependent on the commitment of patients and their family, as the rehabilitation process after surgery is vital in ensuring its outcome,” the Ministry of Health said in a statement.

In 2015, the introduction of universal hearing screenings for all newborns has helped identify babies with hearing loss, and allows health professionals to address language development in these children.

While there is no age restriction on candidates for cochlear implants, many adults with severe or profound hearing loss have not come forward to seek treatment. 

“Some of them are just happy using hearing aids, but I think we can do better because we know that [progressive] hearing loss in adults — especially in the elderly — can accelerate the process of developing dementia,” Dr Fakhruddin said.

Around 30,000 people in Brunei are estimated to suffer from various degrees of hearing impairment.