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Medical Hear-os: Study Finds Simple Body Bacteria Could Help Fight Chronic Ear Infections

Tweaking microbiomes could prevent hearing loss in kids with chronic middle ear infections.

Researchers have found that the interplay of certain bacteria may actually fight chronic middle ear infections, which is the leading cause of preventable hearing loss in Australia’s indigenous communities.

“We’ve been puzzled for years now, trying to work out why some children never develop chronic ear disease, despite being in a high-risk category for contracting it,” said Seweryn Bialasiewicz of Australia’s University of Queensland.

“By focusing on the microbiomes in the upper respiratory tracts of disease-resistant kids, we could investigate the ecological networks of bacterial interactions that seemed to be working together to protect against the condition,” said Bialesiewicz, co-author of a study on the phenomenon appearing in the journal Microbiology Spectrum.

The study investigated the microbiomes of 103 children ages 2 to 7 from communities in north Queensland.

A member of the Deadly Ears team, Queensland Health’s statewide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ear Health Program, conducts an ear and throat health check. (University of Queensland)

“It was clear that these two groups of bacteria needed to not only be present but to be interacting with each other, to provide protection from middle ear infections,” Bialesiewicz said of the more protective microbiome the team described in the study.

The researchers hope that the information obtained will lead to understanding the mechanism of protection and then mimic it in afflicted children as a therapy or preventative measure.

“This could take the form of a molecule that can be used as a drug for treatment or as a protective probiotic so that these ‘good’ bacteria can be seeded in the nose early enough to offer protection against the incoming ‘bad’ bacteria,” Bialesiewicz said. “Our discovery could be applied across the world, helping improve health and reducing the disadvantage gap for a wide range of people.”

According to a report from the Queensland Government Statistician’s Office, approximately 4 percent of the people of Queensland identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait natives. Of these, the government reports that 30 percent live in poverty. The Deadly Ears team, Queensland Health’s statewide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ear Health Program, which flies staff to remote locations, assisted with the study.

Members of a research team and staff of the Deadly Ears health program are seen with the aircraft used to reach remote areas of Australia to provide health care and visit study participants. (Courtesy of Deadly Ears)

Chronic middle ear infections resulting in hearing loss is a serious health issue worldwide among indigenous and other disadvantaged groups, according to researchers.

The problem is dire, said Andrea Coleman, who also worked on the study. “Chronic middle ear infections can affect between one-third to one-half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, which is far above the 4 percent threshold that the World Health Organization considers as a disease needing urgent public health action.”

“This disease can cause hearing loss and can have life-long impacts on speech and language development, education and future employment prospects and in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations contributes to the wide gap in educational and employment outcomes,” said Coleman, who works in the University of Queensland’s Child Health Research Center.

Edited by Richard Pretorius and Kristen Butler

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