A Leesburg hearing center has kicked off its first capital campaign in more than a decade, hoping to raise $30,000 for equipment it needs to detect and diagnose hearing loss in babies.

Blue Ridge Speech and Hearing, where nearly half the clients are children, has wanted to purchase the equipment for years. There is a new sense of urgency, however, because of a state law that was passed last year and took effect this month.

As of July 1, every Virginia hospital with a neonatal intensive care unit is required to screen hearing in all newborn babies before they are discharged. The law will extend to all hospitals in the state next July.

Virginia was the eighth state to pass such universal screening legislation; now 19 states have such laws. But Virginia lawmakers didn't include state funding with the legislation, leaving hospitals--and the hearing treatment centers to which possibly hearing-impaired babies are referred--to come up with the money themselves.

When hospital screening detects possible hearing impairment in a baby, parents turn to centers such as Blue Ridge to conduct further testing and provide treatment if necessary. As a nonprofit clinic, Blue Ridge treats all patients who walk in the door, regardless of their ability to pay.

Study after study has shown that the earlier a hearing impairment is detected, the better a child's chances of learning and communicating normally. The longer a child's hearing problem goes unnoticed, the harder it is for the child to catch up. Experts believe that after a certain point, it is nearly impossible.

Most children with hearing loss are identified at about 2 1/2 years old, according to Blue Ridge audiologists. But by then, the critical time in infancy when language circuitry develops in the brain has passed.

"Currently the big push is to identify all these babies for the potential of hearing loss so that their language isn't further delayed," said Kellie Powell-Istvan, an audiologist at Blue Ridge.

Loudoun Hospital Center is one of 23 hospitals across the state that was required to begin universal hearing screening in newborn babies this month. Before the mandate, the hospital, like most others across the country, screened hearing only in high-risk babies, said Nancy Sehnert, team leader of the hospital's nursery.

But when the state looked at data, officials discovered that about half the children later diagnosed with hearing problems had no identifiable risk factors for hearing loss as babies.

"We knew that we were missing 50 percent of babies," said Pat Dewey, speech and hearing services administrator at the Virginia Department of Health. "So the natural progression was to screen everyone."

Two federal bills that have been introduced in the House and Senate would provide states with money to design and implement universal newborn hearing screening programs.

For every 1,000 babies born, about three have some sort of hearing impairment, making it the most common birth defect in the country, according to the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management at Utah State University.

Loudoun Hospital recently bought equipment to prepare for the new law and began screening all infants a month early. Since the program officially began in July, nurses have detected one baby with possible hearing loss, according to Sehnert, who said the baby's hearing problem likely would have been missed before the universal screening program began. "We all feel like this is a very positive thing," Sehnert said. "Most of us know someone who does have hearing loss, and it can be horrible. It would be so much nicer if we can avoid it."