An innovative and affordable infant hearing screening device was launched in New Delhi this week. Nature India intern Kate Telma, from the Graduate Program in Science Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), attended the launch and came back educated about the significance and necessity of auditory screening for newborns.
Here’s her guest post about the device Sohum, whose name comes from Vedic philosophy – the Sanskrit meaning closely reflecting the Universe’s response to a child’s first cry.
“The most important thing is to screen babies — on time — no matter where they are born,” says Nitin Sisodia, the founder and CEO of Sohum Innovation Lab, a market-driven solutions firm that works to improve the health and incomes of people living in resource-poor settings.
Sisodia and his team of designers, engineers, & business people are now focused on spreading awareness around hearing loss, testing infants and creating an army of training audiologists to do the job. Their newborn hearing screening device Sohum measures an auditory brainstem response, considered the gold standard in auditory testing. Designed for mass screening, the test takes only 90 seconds and can be performed on an infant who is awake.
Sisodia is a 2010 School of International Biodesign (formerly Stanford India Biodesign) fellow, and was chosen to represent one of the 35 startups to visit the Silicon Valley with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015.
The device was developed with support from the Department of Biotechnology and mentorship from AIIMS, IIT Delhi, and Stanford University. Launched July 17 in New Delhi, it is the fourth product to come from the School of International Biodesign programme (SIB), an initiative that focuses on innovative, low-cost, ‘Made in India’ technologies and devices. Other successful products include Qora, a fecal incontinence management system that debuted in India last year.
Each year, 800,000 babies are born with hearing loss — 100,000 of them in India. Roughly 90% of children with hearing impairments in the first month of life are born in low- and middle- income countries. Children in these settings are also more likely to have ear infections or meningitis, other causes for hearing loss that contribute to compromised education and employment later in life.
Ideally, hearing deficits would be detected by three months of age; by six months, the child is fitted with hearing aids or cochlear implant. Currently, hearing loss is diagnosed around age 4, and often much later. Most times, this is too late for effective intervention.
The lack of newborn screening in India has been a concern. While nearly all infants born in the US are screened, and more than 33 European countries have nation-wide screenings in place, majority of hospitals in India do not offer any hearing screening.
Sohum is easy to handle. Even semi-skilled healthcare workers can easily interpret the simple read out of “pass,” “refer,” or “redo”. Data is sent to remote audiologists for verification, and added to a central data bank. The device also functions well in noisy settings, performing with 100% sensitivity in 60 decibels — about the noise level of a busy classroom or restaurant.
The device is expected to be made available to hospitals and primary care centres across India, with plans to reach out to maternity centres and vaccination camps to screen babies born at home. Balram Bhargava, the SIB executive director had a word of advice for the Sohum team. “You will have to manufacture fast,” he said, because the need and demand are clear.