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KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Department of Health have been awarded a $600,000 grant to extend an infant hearing screening program throughout the state.

The grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration will be spread over the next four years.

Barbara Nicodemus, audiologist in the UT Center on Deafness, will serve as consultant to the program. She will work with Jacque Cundall, the state health department’s newborn hearing screening coordinator.

Nicodemus said the goal is to get every newborn baby in Tennessee checked for hearing loss.

“Through this program, we want to identify infants who show signs of possible hearing loss, then follow up with more comprehensive hearing tests by three months,” Nicodemus said.

“If the infants’ hearing loss is still evident, we will get them some intervention by six months. At that early stage, they can still develop age-appropriate speech and language development skills.”

Nicodemus said hearing loss in infants is a significant problem in Tennessee and around the country.

“The March of Dimes and the American Academy of Pediatrics have identified hearing loss as the most common birth defect in the United States,” Nicodemus said. Three out of a thousand babies are born with hearing loss each year.

“That’s potentially 300 babies born with hearing loss each year in Tennessee.”

Nicodemus said newborn hearing screenings are being performed at most hospitals and birthing centers in Tennessee, but there’s room for growth.

“This grant will be really helpful in getting the screening program implemented statewide,” Nicodemus said. “We have 91 hospitals and birthing centers in Tennessee, and 66 of them have voluntarily begun their screening programs. Now we will be able to equip the other facilities.

“By the end of the summer, we’ll have all our hospitals and birthing centers screening for hearing loss, which is a great gain for Tennessee.”

Donnell Ashmore, director of the UT Center on Deafness, said the program has received strong support from the state’s medical community.

“Hospital administrators, nurses and audiologists across Tennessee have been very receptive to the training, support and technical assistance provided by this project,” Ashmore said.

The next step will be to improve follow-up services for infants who have been identified with a hearing loss, Ashmore said.