Hyderabad: Just a decade and half ago, the speech processor of a cochlear implant was the size of a briefcase that had to be lugged around by the hearing impaired wherever they went. Fast forward to 2019, the audio processor has shrunk to the size of a Bluetooth receiver, just like the ones that are used to receive phone calls on cell phones. The electrode contacts of the implant that go inside the inner ear of the patients have gone smaller, softer and flexible.
Introduced in India about three decades ago, cochlear implants were once chunky and tough to carry around. However, now they have evolved in their subsequent iterations, proving to be a boon for children who now can be fitted with the implant within the first nine months.
Earlier only for adults
The first lot of cochlear implants was meant only for adults and only for those who already knew the language but subsequently they became hearing impaired. At that time, there was no after sales support and devices used to fail a lot.
“Later, manufacturers realised that if children born with hearing issues are stimulated at an early age with sound, they can learn speech easily,” says noted ENT surgeon Dr EC Vinaya Kumar.
Till a few years ago, it was a challenge to administer anaesthesia to a nine-month-old infant, who had to be unconscious for 2 to 2.5 hours during surgery. “Anaesthesia has evolved and the entire process now has become foolproof,” says Dr Vinaya Kumar.
High disease burden in TS
The prevalence of hearing impairment in India is highest in the two Telugu speaking States and Tamil Nadu. Thanks to the practice of consanguineous marriages, every year, roughly 2,500 children are born with profound or severe hearing impairment in TS and AP.
Cases pending at Govt ENT Hospital
For the past one year, there have been nearly 100 to 150 children, all hailing from economically weaker sections, in the waiting list to undergo cochlear implant surgery at Government ENT Hospital in Koti.
Till recently, the Aarogyasri health insurance scheme used to cover such surgeries in private hospitals. However, the scheme was discontinued and now such surgeries are conducted only at Government ENT Hospital. Due to manpower and infrastructure challenges, the ENT Hospital has the ability to conduct implant only once a week, which is resulting in a long waiting list.
Apollo completes 1,500 implants
The Cochlear Implant Clinic at Apollo Hospitals has achieved a unique feat by completing 1,500 implants since its launch in 1994. The hospital authorities on Tuesday said that over the years, the clinic has become one of the largest cochlear implant programmes to be run in India.
“We have reached a stage where we no longer send children away just because their family can’t afford a cochlear implant. We have developed the ecosystem in such a way that there is adequate support to children from economically weaker sections,” says senior ENT surgeon Dr EC Vinaya Kumar, who heads the cochlear clinic at the hospital.
The cost of cochlear implants starts from Rs. 6.5 lakh and depending on features, goes up to Rs.16 lakh. There are three USFDA approved cochlear implants that the doctors prefer to implant among children.
Hospital authorities said that voluntary organisations like Society to Aid the Hearing Impaired (SAHI), government institutions and private companies have been large hearted in donating funds for procuring the expensive cochlear implants.
“After the implant, children also need to be taught to listen and understand. For that to happen, they need to undergo audio therapy for a minimum of two years. So, there is a long term commitment involved to cochlear implant surgery,” said senior audiologist, I Srikanth.