BACKGROUND: Otitis media with effusion (OME) is the most common cause of acquired hearing loss in childhood and has been associated with delayed language development and behavioural problems. This condition has a point-prevalence of about 20% at the age of two years, a time of rapid language development. It is most often asymptomatic. Effective treatment exists for clearing effusions. Some have argued, therefore, that children should be screened and treated early if found to have clinically important OME. However, there is a high rate of spontaneous resolution of effusions and, for some children, effusions may represent a physiological response that does not reduce hearing significantly or impact negatively on language development or behaviour. Previous reviews of the effect of screening and treatment have included studies using non-randomised designs.
OBJECTIVES: The aim of this review was to assess evidence from randomised controlled trials about the effect, on language and behavioural outcomes, of screening and treating children with clinically important OME in the first four years of their life. The focus was on the first four years of life because this is the time of most rapid language development. The consequences of hearing loss are likely to be most serious during this time. In addition, children of this age are least likely to be able to report or seek help for impaired hearing, particularly if these problems have a slow onset and are subtle.
SEARCH STRATEGY: We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL, The Cochrane Library, Issue 1 2006), MEDLINE (1950 to 2006) and EMBASE (1974 to 2006) in February 2002, and again in January 2006, and the reference lists of all studies. We also contacted the first authors of the studies we included in the original review.
SELECTION CRITERIA: 1. Randomised controlled trials evaluating interventions for OME among children with OME identified through screening.2. Comparison of outcomes for children randomised to be screened for OME and outcomes for children who were not randomised to be screened for OME.
DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Four authors independently extracted data and assessed trial quality, two in the original review and two for the update.
MAIN RESULTS: We identified no trials comparing outcomes for children randomised to be screened for OME with outcomes for children who were not randomised to be screened for OME. We identified three trials evaluating interventions for OME among children with OME identified through screening, one of which generated three published studies. These were trials of treatment in children identified through screening rather than trials of treatment programs. From these trials, we found no evidence of clinically important benefit in language development from screening and treating children with clinically important OME.
AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: The identified randomised trials do not show an important benefit on language development and behaviour from screening of the general population of asymptomatic children in the first four years of life for OME. However, these trials were all conducted in developed countries. Evidence generated in the developed world, where children may enjoy better nutrition, better living conditions and less severe and different infections may not be applicable to children in developing countries. The screening aspect of some of these studies was aimed primarily at identifying suitable children in whom to evaluate the effects of treatment, rather than to evaluate the effects of screening programs. Younger children and children with milder disease may have been included in these treatment trials compared to children who are offered treatment in pragmatic settings.