Why are ear infections more likely in Native Americans?

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While providing care for the members of the Navajo Nation in the remote, high desert of New Mexico, Dr. James Ochi treated many children who had severe, chronic ear infections. His experience is backed by research showing that Native American children suffer from ear infections—that may result in hearing loss—at a rate of three times higher than average. Research also shows that middle ear infections may have a genetic link and may be passed down from parent to child. 

While providing care for the members of the Navajo Nation in the remote, high desert of New Mexico, Dr. James Ochi treated many children who had severe, chronic ear infections. His experience is backed by research showing that Native American children suffer from ear infections—that may result in hearing loss—at a rate of three times higher than average. Research also shows that middle ear infections may have a genetic link and may be passed down from parent to child. 

Dr. Ochi, a pediatric otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, launched a research study shortly after his work in New Mexico that may shed light on both of these topics. 

Using computerized tomography (CT) technology, he examined 20 ancient Native American skulls and found that 25 percent of these skulls showed clear evidence of longstanding ear infections. The human skulls were between 700 and 1,000 years old, and from a private collection near the reservation where he was working. 

The results, says Dr. Ochi, show there is indeed a history of chronic ear infections in Native Americans— and now we need to understand why. 

“I really hope this study inspires further research into why Native American children suffer ear infections,” Dr. Ochi says. “I was astounded by the frequency and severity of chronic ear infections I saw during my time with the Navajo. Chronic ear infections often may lead to permanent hearing loss and may negatively affect learning and job performance.”

Dr. Ochi presented his findings to the American Society of Pediatric Otolaryngology in July 2017. 

While middle ear infections are common in early childhood, if left untreated they can cause permanent damage. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents take the following steps to reduce the risk of childhood ear infections:

– Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke 

– Teach children to frequently wash their hands 

– Keep up to date with vaccines

– Ensure that children receive their flu shot each year 

Not all ear infections should be treated with antibiotics, as some are caused by viruses that do not respond to antibiotics. 

This article features experts from Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. For more health stories visit www.sharp.com/news.

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