One woman strives to tackle newborn hearing loss in the developing world


This headband can be slipped on a newborn’s head to administer a test. There’s a lack of universal hearing tests in India and other developing countries. (Courtesy of Neeti Kailas)

Every year roughly 100,000 hearing-impaired babies are born in India, yet the country lacks a universal screening programs to identify hearing loss. India isn’t alone in facing this problem, the majority of those with hearing loss live in low- or middle-income countries.

“At age 3, people realize ‘Oh my god, she’s not saying anything. By the time the parents go to the pediatrician and get sent to someone else and then finally she gets a hearing screening, she’s already lost speech,” Neeti Kailas said. “Speech loss is preventable if a baby is diagnosed early enough and given the right rehabilitation.”

Kailas and her husband Nitin Sisodia launched the Sohum Innovation Lab in India, where they’ve developed a prototype for a device to detect hearing loss in infants. She is being honored by the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which recognize five young laureates, all 30 or younger, for taking on some of the world’s biggest challenges.

Newborn wards and hospitals are naturally noisy, so finding a quiet place for a hearing test isn’t easy. Kailas’s battery-powered device is designed to work in noisy settings by tuning out ambient noise. Electrodes in the headband-like device identify brain activity associated with good hearing. She expects the device to cost about $4,000, and is exploring ways to make the cost more manageable.

The 50,000 Swiss francs (about $56,000) she receives from Rolex will be used for clinical trials later this year and Kailas aims to launch the device in 2016.

Other recipients of the award include Saudi Arabian Hosam Zowawi, who is developing a test for drug-resistant bacteria. Arthur Zang of Cameroon is developing a tablet to diagnose heart disease. Rwandan Olivier Nsengimana is striving to preserve Central Africa’s Grey Crowned Crane population and Italian geologist Francesco Sauro is exploring remote caves in Venezuela and Brazil.

A panel of eight experts selected the winners from a pool of 1,800 applicants.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Matt McFarland | June 23