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HIV, Hearing Loss Connected

SDSU research found children exposed to HIV in the womb are at increased risk for hearing loss.

Children exposed to HIV in the womb may be more likely to experience hearing loss by age 16 than are their unexposed peers, according to research released by the National Institutes of Health and led by Peter Torre III, professor of audiology at San Diego State University.

Torre and his co-researchers in a NIH research network estimated that hearing loss affects 9 to 15 percent of HIV-infected children and 5 to 8 percent of children who did not have HIV at birth but whose mothers had HIV infection during pregnancy.  Study participants ranged from 7 to 16 years old.

The researchers defined hearing loss as the level at which sounds could be detected, when averaged over four frequencies important for speech understanding (500, 1000, 2000, and 4000 Hertz), that was 20 decibels or higher than the normal hearing level for adolescents or young adults in either ear.

“Children exposed to HIV before birth are at higher risk for hearing difficulty, and it’s important for these children and the health providers who care for them to be aware of this,” said Dr. George K. Siberry of the Pediatric, Adolescent, and Maternal AIDS Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the NIH institute that leads the research network.

The study was published online in The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal.

200-300 percent more likely
    
Compared to national averages for other children their age, children with HIV infection were about 200 to 300 percent more likely to have a hearing loss.

Children whose mothers had HIV during pregnancy, but who themselves were born without HIV, were 20 percent more likely to have hearing loss.

“If parents and teachers know the child has a hearing problem, then they may take measures to compensate in various communication settings, such as placement in the front of the classroom or avoiding noisy settings,” explained Howard Hoffman, director of the Epidemiology and Statistics Program at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, which provides funding to the network for studies related to hearing and language.

Even a mild hearing loss in children can delay the acquisition of language skills. 

More severe hearing loss may require the use of assistive devices, such as a hearing aid.  Information on hearing and deafness is available from NIDCD.

To determine the types of hearing loss the children experienced, the researchers conducted these evaluations:

  • Physical examination of the ear canal
  • Evaluation of the middle ear function, how sound vibrations are transmitted through the middle ear bones
  • Responses to tones presented over earphones

Hearing loss may occur from damage to the bones and structures in the ear canal and inner ear, or from damage to the nerves leading to the brain.

Research collaboration

Torre led the study with Hoffman, Siberry and six other coauthors. Collaborators were from the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; the University of Kansas, Lawrence; and Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans.

The research was conducted as part of the Pediatric HIV/AIDS Cohort Study network, led by National Institute of Child and Human Development in cooperation with and with cofounding from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Diseases and several other NIH institutes, including:

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
  • National Institute of Mental Health
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
  • National Heart Lung and Blood Institute
  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

About the process

More than 200 children and teenagers participated.  All had been exposed to HIV before birth, and about 60 percent were HIV-positive at the time of the study.

Researchers conducted hearing tests on the children if their parents or caregivers had reported hearing problems, they had low scores on a standard test of language or their health care providers detected hearing problems during standard hearing screenings.

The researchers classified participants who could not hear tones below a certain volume as having hearing loss with difficulties in quiet and noisy settings.  The researchers documented a greater proportion of hearing loss cases among HIV-positive children and found that those who had developed AIDS at any point were even more likely to have hearing loss — even if the disease was under control at the time of the study.  

HIV and ear infections

Earlier studies have found that children with HIV are susceptible to middle ear infections.  Repeated middle ear infections can cause hearing loss.

However, in 60 percent of cases in the study, hearing loss was the result of problems with the transmission of sound from the nerves of the ear to the brain, rather than to damage in the middle ear resulting from ear infections.  

“Although ear infections are more common among children with HIV, these do not appear to be the reason their hearing is more likely to be compromised,” Torre said.

Torre is looking to expand his research internationally and has applied for a grant to evaluate hearing loss characteristics in children exposed to HIV living in South Africa.

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