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Turning a deaf ear

Case Study 1

Samsuddin, a 13-year-old boy from Metiabruz, was diagnosed with “severe” deafness when his mother took him to a free health camp organised in the neighbourhood. He would often complain of his head reeling. But his problem was not congenital; neither had he suffered from an accident — the deafness had developed over a period of time. On being quizzed, his family said that theirs was an ostagar (tailoring) family and the boy was constantly exposed to the noise of the motorised machine as well as the loud music that is played as the tailors are bent over their work round the clock.

Case Study 2

Rathin Mondal (name changed), in his mid- twenties, has been making a living driving his autorickshaw from Park Circus to Esplanade for the last eight years. He drives his vehicle for 12 to 14 hours every day. For a year he often felt difficulty in hearing with his left ear, but did not think about visiting a doctor till the day he failed to hear the horn of a car speeding passed his auto and met with a minor accident. Mondal was found to be suffering from “moderate” hearing loss.

Case Study 3

Masudan Bibi is a 70-year-old slum dweller who lives in the narrow, over-congested Bright Street in south Calcutta. She was suffering from various diseases and used to take a lot of medicines regularly. She was exposed to a high level of ambient noise. The audiologist found her suffering from severe deafness.

Case Study 4

Tapan Datta (name changed), a middle-aged business professional, thought he was physically fit. One day after waking up, he discovered that he only could sense a whistling sound in one ear. He could not hear the ring tone of his mobile phone. An immediate visit to the doctor showed that Datta had suddenly developed complete deafness in one ear. Medication was only expected to restore partial hearing. The condition was attributed to an unknown viral infection.

Deafness is on the rise in Calcutta. All the parameters linked to hearing — rather the loss of it — are moving on a steep upward curve, be it patients queuing up at the chambers of ENT specialists, availability of audiologists, sale of hearing aids or clinical test results. “I have been practising for nearly five decades. Not only patients suffering from hearing loss have increased manifold, but the nature of complaints has also widened significantly,” says Dulal Bose, ENT specialist and former sheriff of Calcutta. “The city patients mostly complain about tinnitus (abnormal sound perceived in the ear), vertigo (reeling of the head) and of course deafness. Of the three, two often affect a patient simultaneously,” Bose adds.

Back in 1970, in his early years of practice, Bose hardly had patients with complaints of tinnitus or vertigo and mostly got elderly patients with complaints of hearing loss or patients who had suffered from an accident. The profile of the patient, too, has changed, with the number of patients in the age group of 30-50 years rising significantly.

“At our Ramakrishna Mission Seva Pratishthan in Sarat Bose Road the number of outdoor patients with noise-induced hearing loss, sudden senso-neural hearing loss, ear infection leading to deafness, noise trauma or even deafness caused by various drugs (mainly which treat tuberculosis, malaria or cancer) has at least doubled in the last five years; also the average age of patients has dropped below 50,” says Sabyasachi Gon, ENT specialist with the hospital.

Scientific studies also point towards the rise in hearing problems.

In 1995-96, a study anchored by ENT specialist Abirlal Mukherjee showed that around 10 per cent of the 1,000-plus people surveyed were suffering from various forms of hearing loss. A 2010-2011 study by Jadavpur University in association with a city-based non profit organisation, guided by the university pro vice-chancellor Siddhartha Datta, found that nearly 34 per cent of the randomly picked sample of more than 500 respondents were affected with hearing loss on different scales. “What is more significant is the fact that three-fourths of the affected were either moderate or severely affected,” says an expert associated with the project.

Audiologist Partha Bose says that the patients coming for audiometry, a test to assess the level of hearing ability, has increased to a large extent. Many of them have a history of chronic exposure to high noise level, either living or working in a constantly noisy area like Gariahat, Shyambazar or Burrabazar.

The market — and its demand — has led to a 20-fold increase of audiometry centres in the city during the last four decades while the sale of neurotropic drugs, used in nerve-related hearing problems, has increased at least ten-fold.

The increased availability of hearing aids tells the same story. In 1982, former chief minister Jyoti Basu had to get an analogue hearing aid (an amplifier) from England while he suffered marginal hearing loss. In 2011, around 20,000 hearing aids — including low-cost analogue ones and high-priced digital ones — are sold annually by at least 10 companies in Calcutta, most of them multinational.

“The day is not far off when we will be able to find dedicated hearing aid shops on every road like the spectacles shops now… already there are around five in the city,” says Anil Shaw, a marketing professional selling hearing aids. The need for hearing aids has gone up so rapidly that a multinational company, Starky, has been doling out 1,000 free hearing aids every year in the city for the last four years.

The experts mainly blame a high level of noise pollution. It comes as no surprise, for Calcutta is known as the noise capital of the country. “The average ambient noise level in the city is often above 70 decibels while our normal speaking voice is not expected to go beyond 50 decibels. Hence we have to speak at a far higher volume than normal and that in turn affects our hearing,” observes Dulal Bose. The expert says that constant honking, poor road conditions, poor maintenance of vehicles, minimum buffering of sound from residential zones have been the major contributors to noise pollution — and hence deafness — while the effect of unknown viruses (generally associated with poor environmental quality) has also been rapidly increasing. Sudden hearing loss due to the impact of crackers bursting has also increased significantly, especially during Kalipuja and Diwali, he adds.

Partha Bose points out a lifestyle factor in constant talking on mobile phones along with round-the-clock hearing of music through headphones as triggers. The situation has steadily deteriorated.

“Calcutta is already a noisy city. It will become more and more so with the progress of its modernisation. This should not be allowed to happen without some attempt at controlling the noise, if Calcutta is to remain a tolerable place to live in,” said writer-commentator Nirad C Chaudhuri 75 years ago in an article in the Calcutta Municipal Gazette.

We have remained deaf to such voices.

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