When 7-year-old Mukesh met entrepreneur Neeti Kailas, she was awestruck by the playful energy he exuded. When Neeti took a closer look, she realized Mukesh was deaf by birth, and as a result of this disability being detected late, he could not speak either.
Neeti was shaken to the core when it dawned on her that late detection of hearing impairment in babies and ignorance in the family could render babies unable to speak when they grow older.
Neeti, a graduate from National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, is working with Nitin Sisodia, a fellow of Stanford Biodesign India, on 'Sohum' a baby-friendly device for mass screening newborns to detect hearing impairment. The device is a solution for mass screening newborns for hearing loss in resource-poor settings to prevent loss of speech.
The contraption is a headgear with inbuilt electrodes that can be mounted on a newborn's head. "It makes a click sound, and captures the electronic signature it produces in the brain. The signature graph of the hearing impaired will vary from that of a normal child," said Nitin Sisodia.
The unique device will work in noisy environments and will be the first machine to be used in which a baby will not need to be sedated before testing.
"Currently, the test for hearing impairment takes place in a sound-proof place, and the child has to be asleep. Also, it costs up to Rs 2,000 for the test in a private hospital. With Sohum available at subsidized costs, we are looking at slashing the cost of the test to make it affordable for the masses," said Sisodia.
About 500,000 hearing-impaired babies are born every year in the world, of this 100,000 are in India. This means, one of every five babies born with hearing loss is an Indian.
At present in India there is no mechanism in place to ensure compulsory screening for hearing in newborns in public or private hospitals. "There is no system of proactive screening for newborns in India. After realizing that their child cannot hear and as a result cannot speak even when s/he is four years or older, parents consult doctors. As a child grows older, the scope for restoring hearing capacity partially diminishes," said Dr Ramesh Konanki, paediatric neurologist at All India Medical Institute of Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi. In contrast, if detection is done early, a child can be taught to communicate in alternative ways with its family and teachers."
Neeti said 'Sohum,' a non-invasive and safe machine—which is undergoing trials and would soon be tested on close to 5,000 babies in AIIMS, St John's Hospital, Bangalore and Rainbow Hospital, Hyderabad—would only be one fifth the price of the current age-old machines in the market. "It will cost close to Rs 2.5 lakh. We are looking at mass production of the device by 2016. We will eventually propose to the Union and state governments to conduct universal screening at a mass level," said Neeti.
* One of every five babies born with hearing loss in the world is an Indian.
* 'Sohum,' is a device for mass screening of newborns for hearing loss in resource-poor settings to prevent speech loss.
* It works in noisy environments.
* No need to sedate the baby while testing.
* Affordable and accessible.