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Transcript of joint press conference: Parliament House: 19 August 2009: new research by Australian Hearing; Hearing Awareness Week.



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CHRIS BOWEN MP Minister for Human Services

Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law

JUSTINE ELLIOT MP

Minister for Ageing

*TRANSCRIPT*

PRESS CONFERENCE, PARLIAMENT HOUSE

WEDNESDAY 19TH AUGUST, 2009

E&OE PROOF ONLY

SUBJECTS: New research by Australian Hearing, Hearing Awareness Week.

KATHRYN GREINER, CHAIRMAN, AUSTRALIAN HEARING: Good morning. Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you I haven't met before, I'm Kathryn Greiner, the Chairman of Australian Hearing. It's my pleasure to welcome you this morning to what's effectively the launch of Hearing Awareness Week.

First of all I would like to acknowledge the elders of our land, both past and present, on whose land we now gather for this event. I would also particularly like to welcome this morning Minister Chris Bowen, the Minister for Human Services, and the Honourable Justine Elliott, minister for ageing, both of whom will be speaking. After that, having introduced the research we're launching today, Professor Harvey Dillon, the director of the research arm of Australian Hearing, the National Acoustic Laboratories, will be speaking with us about the research we're launching today.

Hearing Awareness Week is actually the hallmark of the Deafness Forum. I want to acknowledge Alex Jones and Nicole Lawder, your executive officer is not with us. Alex is the Chairman of the Deafness Forum of Australia, the name of which just escaped me completely. I apologise for that. I also want to acknowledge the presence in the room, too, of the executive of staff from Hearing Australia, which is Mr Stephen Grundy, our CEO and our COO Mr Stephen Patterson and our hearing ambassador Dr John D'Arcy. We welcome you John as always. Thank you very much for your time.

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After our press conference this morning, the honourable Senator Seiwert from Western Australia and Senator Mitch Fifield will be working with us in launching some of the new technology available to assist those who are hearing impaired. With those few remarks, I please ask the Minister for Ageing, Minister Elliot, if you'd like to say a few words please.

JUSTINE ELLIOT: I start by acknowledging Chris Bowen, the Minister for Human Services, Kathryn Greiner, the chair of Australian Hearing, to Alex Jones, the Chairman of Deafness Forum of Australia, and I understand Nicole couldn't be here today. To Steve Grundy, Managing Director of Australian Hearing, to Professor Harvey Dillon, director of the National

Acoustic Laboratories, and Dr John D'Arcy, the ambassador for Australian Hearing.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is great to be here again this year and I understand the theme for this year's Hearing Awareness Week is "at home, at work, at play." It really is an opportunity to get information about services available and free hearing screenings. So it's vitally important. And currently more than 3.5 million Australians are affected by some form of hearing loss. That's one in six. And this is projected to increase to one in four Australians by 2050.

Certainly, this government has a major commitment to hearing services. In fact, in June the Prime Minister announced the Australian Government will seek a commitment from the States and Territories to deliver newborn hearing screening for all Australian babies, born from 1 January 2011. Of course, currently only 75% of newborns are screened. And in this year's budget, $348 million was committed to not only support people with hearing loss, but also to work towards prevention of hearing problems. And key priorities include

improving support for younger people and Indigenous Australians, as well as research into preventing hearing loss. And in fact, the Hearing Services Program received $18.7 million to provide hearing services to more than 26,000 children and young adults.

A year ago I announced $3.6 million in funding for five groups to research ways to prevent avoidable hearing loss. And one of these groups was Australian Hearing's National Acoustic Laboratories. And today, the Minister for Human Services will launch the findings of this research conducted by Galaxy Research for Australian Hearing. So I have no doubt that many of the events planned will be very, very successful in raising awareness of this very important issue. Thank you.

GREINER: Minister, thank you very much. Australian Hearing acknowledges the opportunity to work with your department in delivering hearing services across Australia. We have over 1,000 employees. We have just on 100 centres and almost 300 visiting sites so we cover the length and breadth of hearing services in Australia, and I always say that our Australian Hearing staff never come across an impairment that they can't manage or they can't handle. And I think without the government's support that would not be possible.

It's now my great pleasure to ask our minister, the Minister for Human Services, the Honourable Chris Bowen, to speak to you about not only hearing loss in Australia, but also the findings of the research. Thank you, Minister.

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CHRIS BOWEN: Thank you very much, Kathryn. I'm delighted to be here with my colleague Justine Elliot and the distinguished guests who've already been acknowledged to launch these findings and also to talk about Hearing Awareness Week.

We hear a lot about social inclusion these days and rightly so. It's about being involved in society and the community as much as you possibly can be. And there are some who find that more difficult than others. Those with hearing impairment often find that more difficult than others. So it's perfectly appropriate and responsible for governments to assist in whatever way they can to assist those who have hearing difficulties. I'm delighted with Justine to be involved in this process.

I want to particularly celebrate the work of the two government organisations which do so much, the Office of Hearing Services, which answers to Justine and Hearing Australia, which answers to me. One of the great pleasures of my two months as Human Services Minister so far has been to work with Hearing Australia and to familiarise myself with the work that's being done. I was in the centre just recently, the week before last, and around Alice Springs and saw the work that Australian Hearing does in cooperation with other government agencies in promoting better hearing treatments and hearing awareness amongst our Indigenous community which suffers from hearing loss in much too great a proportion compared to the rest of our population, and there is really great work being done there, and so Kathryn, to your organisation and to Stephen, congratulations on the work that's being done there, together with the Office of Hearing Services.

As Justine said this has been made a government priority, and the Prime Minister, from the Prime Minister down, it's something that we are very committed to.

And I'd also like to acknowledge the presence and the work and the advocacy of Dr Brendan Nelson, who joins us today. Brendan, thank you for reaching out across the partisan divide and working with us and making suggestions as to how we can progress this further. Your work has been invaluable and I know the Prime Minister appreciates it and we all do and it needs to be acknowledged.

Today I'm also launching the findings of the research that's been conducted. Professor Dillon will talk to you about it in detail. But I'll simply give you two take-out messages.

Firstly, the research deals with the need to get your hearing tested if you feel that you may have a problem. You know, we've come a long way due to the work of our government organisations and private sector organisations in technology. And you no longer have to have a big clunky hearing aid any more. And many people have hearing aids and people who know them quite well wouldn't know about it. And there's still a reluctance I find in the community to get your hearing tested because some people mightn't like the results. But it's a misplaced reluctance. And it is really important to get your hearing tested if you feel that there just may be a problem. I was struck by the results of the findings about just how long people wait before they get their hearing tested and we really need to do better than that.

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I think there's also an important message to families there, because many of us may notice when a member of our family is starting to lose their hearing. And that individual mightn't want to actually hear that news, that we're having to repeat ourselves a little more often or having to turn the TV up a little louder than we'd like but it's an important conversation to have with members of the family to encourage the hearing tests because they're not intrusive; the technology is wonderful and there is a great range of support available through the public and private sectors.

The other take-home message is of course that noise is responsible for the hearing loss of many Australians, and not just at the older end of the spectrum, but for younger people as well. We all love iPods. I'm no exception. I have an iPod and I listen to music and I listen to lectures and I listen to downloads of Parliament, Brendan, and all sorts of things.

(LAUGHTER)

And they're great things.

But we all need to be careful. And when you have such great sound quality coming into your ear, you don't need to have the volume up quite so high, because it can have an effect on you down the track. It's a message for all of us as parents and family members as well as for young people, to send that message to the younger generation, that hearing is something very precious, very precious that we never want to lose. And that we should hold onto and we shouldn't be undertaking in any activity which puts that at risk. That's the second take-home finding I think out of the research today.

So thank you all very much for your interest, involvement and support of the work Australian Hearing do, and the work that the Office of Hearing Services does. And the work that all the private sector and not for profit community groups do in promoting the awareness of hearing in Australia. Thank you very much.

GREINER: Thank you, minister. Minister, thank you for those words and for all of those who are here in Parliament House, there are hearing screenings for your - testing your hearing throughout certainly today and this week, and Hearing Awareness Week really kicks off next week, so you will be as they say hearing a lot more in this space.

It's my great pleasure to introduce now Professor Harvey Dillon. Australian Hearing is if you like the public face of the activities in terms of ameliorating hearing loss throughout the community but we can't do that without our research arm and we are delighted and grateful that we have a world-class research facility in the National Acoustic Laboratories. So to tell us a bit more about the research which the Minister's office kindly funded for us through the Office of Ageing, is Professor Harvey Dillon. Thank you, Harvey.

PROFESSOR HARVEY DILLON: Thank you, Kathryn. Thank you, distinguished guests one and all. The survey we're talking about this morning is the small tip of a very large research iceberg that we're under way, we have under way at National Acoustic Laboratories. The survey itself was just 300 people. We were asking them about the effect

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that hearing loss had had on them, the effect that hearing aids had had on them and where they believe they got their hearing loss from. That last question produced quite a stunning answer. 80% of males believe they got their hearing loss from work. There has been a lot of publicity about leisure noise. But 80% of males, only about 20% of females believe that. These people were all over the age of 65. So that sort of has a ring of truth about it if you think about the types of professions they were in. It prompted us to grab the last 16,000 audiograms, the measurement of hearing from the last 16,000 people seen by Australian Hearing, and the opinions of those people absolutely stacks up. I will just race over there and get my computer.

When we analysed the audiograms indeed, at least 61% of the males had the types of hearing loss that we absolutely associate with noise, and roughly 30% of females did. So number one message, noise over the working lifetime of those elderly people has caused many of them, particularly the males, most of the males, to have their hearing loss. Is that surprising? In one way, no, but the surprising thing is, we, the world of science has known that noise causes hearing loss for all that time that those people were at work. For much of that time there were regulations about avoiding noise. It's really simple to avoid noise. You

move away, turn it down, put ear plugs in, any one of those things, yet it hasn't happened. Now, we think the same thing is happening with leisure noise, which I will return to very shortly. The noise that occurs is real injury. When you burn yourself, you see the injury, you know not to do it again. When you injure your ears, you don't feel it, and you don't see it. But it's real nonetheless.

These are some pictures of the little hair cells inside - I don't know whether it's human or a mammal, this particular one, they look exactly the same no matter what mammal it is. These are the little hairs on the hair cell of a healthy ear - standing up straight like little soldiers in a row. After listening to noise for 24 hours, they look like that. Now, if the noise is not too great, after another week, they come back to looking like this, most of them, but some of them don't. And so as a result of that particular concert, that particular loud session with the MP3 player, that particularly noisy time at work, a proportion of these don't come back. What we end up with is something like this. This is again the normal ear on this side with all of these little rows of hair cells, and over here we have some that are mangled, some that are missing. This is cumulative, over time, bit by bit, no-one notices it happening until eventually it happens. It's gradual, it's cumulative and irreversible.

So the problem is that we've known for the last 50 years that noise at work causes hearing loss, yet we have our retired generation with hearing loss. We know right now that excessive leisure noise from concerts, MP3 players, pubs, causes hearing loss, yet that's happening, too. Our concern is that when today's 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds, maybe 40-year-olds reach into their 50s and 60s, they will have the double whammy of noise at work and noise at play. And many of them from just one of those alone.

As Minister Bowen mentioned it does take people a long time to do something about their hearing loss. These days, it's as easy as picking up the phone to phone Telstra in the free over-the-telephone service, 1800 826 500, but despite that, the average wait for males was six years. It's a shame because what they told us in the survey is that hearing aids are

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really good. They don't bring your hearing back to normal, but if you have lost it then hearing aids produce many benefits. Basically it made life easier. Easier to have conversations, it made it easier to re-engage with the social life, easier for intimate conversations, one of the strong ones in there, there are some things you don't want to have to say, "Please say that louder," if it's meant for your ears alone.

So it's both a negative message, people are getting hearing loss despite us knowing that noise will cause it and a positive message, if you have got it, you can do something about it. You can get tested really easily and you can get hearing aids which are getting a little better every year such that they're producing fantastic benefits for people now. I guess that's the negative and the positive message.

GREINER: If there are any questions for either the Professor or the Ministers, I'm sure they'd be very happy to take them.

JOURNALIST: Either to the Ministers or the Professor, we now know that workplaces are causing so much of these problems. Is there something that not just employees but workplaces can do to prevent this from happening further? Is enough being done?

DILLON: Enough is clearly not being done. I don't have the dollar figures but there are large compensation claims still going on today for injuries in the workplace - and so clearly not enough is being done. It's a shared responsibility between the employer and the employee. There is the obvious solution of putting hearing protectors in, but there are limitations to those. There are less obvious solutions like changing the equipment, reorganising the work physically so that only the operator is next to the noisy equipment, who wears the hearing protectors and everyone else is further away, changing shifts. There are various administrative things, as well as getting quieter equipment and wearing hearing protectors. It's a simple problem, it's just that people don't really appreciate the need to do it because they don't know what it's like to have a hearing loss until they've got it.

GREINER: Anything further?

BRENDAN NELSON: Could I ask a question?

GREINER: I'm sure you can, Dr Nelson

NELSON: I'm not a journalist.

BOWEN: Is it a dixer?

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: How does somebody know that their iPod is too loud? For those of us who are parents we can often hear our kids in the next room with their iPod, the earphones in their ears and we can hear it and we're a room away. How do you know?

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DILLON: There's a simple first test. The first test is to have a conversation with the person wearing the iPod. If they can understand you while they're wearing it and listening to the music they're probably at an OK level, they can listen as long as they like. If they fail that test, then the question is, how high up is the volume and how many hours a day they listen to it? While the answers depend a bit on the actual ear bud, if you use a stock ear bud that comes with an iPod, for instance, that particular brand, I happen to have it here, if you listen at 80% volume, you can listen for 1.5 hours a day and you will get the equivalent of a worker in a noisy place at work at 85 db which is right on the limit at which some people are just starting to get hearing loss over a lifetime.

So, 80%, 1.5 hours. Turn it up to 100% and you're down to 5 minutes is the safe dose. So it's a very savage relationship between that volume and the amount of time. If you turn it down to 60%, you can listen to it for 24 hours a day and you will be OK.

DR JOHN D’ARCY: Are they capped in any way?

DILLON: Not in Australia. There are some countries that they have caps, where there's legislation requiring caps. It's not a straightforward solution, but it's something, I suppose.

GREINER: Wonderful. I think we've done with our questions. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. And thank you, Ministers and Professor as well. Thank you.

Ends