The University of Western Australia’s eminent paediatric ear, nose and throat specialist Clinical Professor Harvey Coates was one of four surgeons in Australia and New Zealand to be awarded the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons’ (RACS) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Medal.
After more than three decades treating children in remote locations, Professor Coates, from UWA’s School of Paediatrics and Child Health and UWA’s School of Surgery, has seen the damage that chronic otitis media (middle ear inflammation) causes in Aboriginal children in regional Western Australia.
Professor Coates, who also works as a surgeon at Princess Margaret Hospital for Children, said hearing loss in children was a disease of poverty.
“We have to recognise hearing loss for the scourge it is – a chronic disease every bit as deadly as heart disease or cancer,” he said. “We have 100,000 people in Australia with holes in their ears that can result in brain abscesses. We need to act.
“For far too long runny ear has been treated as a condition that’s not taken seriously despite the terrible cascading effect it can have if not appropriately treated. Mothers in remote communities have become so familiar with a condition they may have suffered themselves as a child – they almost regard it as normal.
“We have to get the message through: we need to get on top of ear disease using all our best skills and management – and, with the will to do so, we’ll succeed.”
Professor Coates said children who had 32 months of hearing loss before the age of five years were unlikely to develop language, learning and other skills.
“They’re more likely to behave badly, become a school truant and run into trouble with the law,” he said. “Ninety-three per cent of Aboriginal males in jail in Darwin have suffered with hearing loss – so we know the strong relationship between these factors.
“Education is the key and we are seeing some positive signs of an improvement in ear health in children living in the city and in centres where treatment in more accessible. But in communities where there is overcrowding, a lack of hygiene and poor diet, the condition spreads rapidly and with disastrous results.”
Professor Coates spends six to eight weeks a year in remote Aboriginal communities and urban outreach clinics for Aboriginal children.