Climate change and child ear problems link discovered

A link has been discovered during recent research between climate change and children contracting ear infections. Children are now developing more Otitis Media, or ear infections, during the winter months of December/January, which is two months later than has been recorded for the past 2 decades. An analysis of trends dating back to 2000 have been revealed by the General Practice Research Database has suggested a link to global warming.

Researchers are also warning that GP’s could now face more pressure as they have to treat more cases than ever during what is already one of the busiest periods of the year for those who work in the health service. Two scientists have been funded by Deafness Research UK to investigate the trends in this common ailment, suing a database of the GP consultations which took place during the 2000’s.

Both these, and figures collated from other countries, have shown that consultations regarding ear infections have gradually declined over the years. The condition is invariably more common during the winter and this must be taken into account when looking at possible changes over the years.

Whilst the researches didn’t expect to see the winter peak displaced, but found that the typical sharp rise that took place in October/November was now coming 2 months later. The annual decline was also shown to be the steepest during the months of autumn.

One possible explanation is the warmer autumns in recent years preventing seasonal viruses (which cause colds and trigger OM) from getting established as early as previously. The importance of temperature in month-to-month variation suggests that this is indeed a major factor.

Glue ear, which is a major consequence of OM, is the retention of fluid in the middle ear for some weeks after an ear infection. It causes hearing loss that often changes children’s communication and behaviour. Its annual cycle is a month or more delayed with respect to that for OM. The researchers found the glue ear peak occurred progressively later in recent years, just like the cycle for the primary infection, OM.

“It is known that overall global warming  has been slower recently, but the autumn rise in ear infection consultations in the UK has still been happening later and later,” said Professor Mark Haggard, Deafness Research UK Chairman and a Senior Visiting Researcher at the University of Cambridge.

“We have used controls for as many of the known factors as possible and we find a close link to the actual month-to-month temperatures within the years studied. So we have to consider that the overall change in pattern is partly due to changing aspects of climate, particularly the milder autumns of recent years. Some respiratory viruses are temperature-sensitive.”

Professor Haggard has been analysing the data with Dr Ian Williamson of the Department of General Practice at Southampton University who, as a practising GP, has a strong interest in the implications of the data for UK GPs. “The timing and nature of advice to GPs and parents may have to reflect these changing patterns,” added Dr Williamson. “In those children who do get glue ear following an ear infection, more of this will now occur in December/January rather than November. This is a period when there are other pressures on families and overall demand on the health service has built up. Nevertheless it is still necessary to look out for children who miss sounds and appear not to be paying attention, or are being less cooperative than usual, as these are the signs of glue ear.”

Vivienne Michael, Chief Executive of Deafness Research UK, said: “Glue ear remains a problem among young children and this latest research could prove useful in helping GPs and others in the health service to recognise where the peaks and troughs are now likely to be. Then they can provide the necessary cover.”

For further information on deafness and deafness-related conditions call freephone 0808 808 2222 or visit Deafness Research UK’s website at www.deafnessresearch.org.uk

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