Spring 2003


Audiologist Joseph Attias’ Goal: A Bridge to Peace Through Hearing


Dr. Joseph Attias believes that improved hearing “can break the silence.”  It can, he said, “increase understanding and listening between neighbors.”

        Attias, an associate professor, is in charge of the audiology unit, which he set up, of the Dept. of Communication Disorders.  This is his first year at the University, and he brought to the Mt. Carmel campus another first, the First MEHA Auditory Rehabilitation Conference, held toward the end of February.

        MEHA stands for Middle East Hearing Association, an association for managing hearing loss that is under the patronage of His Royal Highness Prince Firas bin Raad of Jordan, who heads its steering committee.  Firas’s father is former Crown Prince Hassan, brother of the late King Hussein.  The association was set up in 1998 under the umbrella of the Canada-Israel International Scientific Exchange Program (CISEPO), based at Toronto ’s Mt. Sinai Hospital and the University of Toronto . 

        The conference, which drew a large audience despite the country’s tense situation, saw the participation of researchers and senior practitioners from various hospitals in Israel , as well as from Jordan , the Palestinian Authority, and Canada .  It is events like this one that generated Attias’ remark about the implications of improved hearing.  “MEHA,” he says, “is a scientific framework that provides a context for dialog, to the benefit of our children.”

One can see from his descriptions that the benefits he referred to are both literal and figurative, immediate and long range.   The conference had a dual purpose, according to Attias.  One was to provide an introductory training program in different rehabilitation therapies and hearing aid maintenance, and to expose MEHA partners to Israeli audiologic approaches.  The second, no less important objective for him, was to promote regional cooperation in research and science by “building bridges of understanding and cooperation.”

“A very respected mission came from Jordan ,” Attias said.  “They were impressed by the University and its facilities, and the Dept. of Communication Disorders in particular.  I see them as full partners [in research endeavors], and we’re very proud to have the opportunity to learn from them about many aspects.”  Jordan ’s Irbid University wants to cooperate with UH to promote the whole subject of hearing rehabilitation, he continued, adding that he is preparing a book on the subject jointly with Jordanian experts in the field.

Israel ,” said Attias, who is also director of the Institute for Clinical Neurophysiology and Audiology at Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikva, “is one of the best places for rehabilitation, not just for the ear and hearing, but for the whole family.” 

The conference itself provided background to the findings and rehabilitation proposals that he and colleagues from Jordan and the Palestinian Authority announced in MEHA Project 1—“Early Detection of Hearing Loss in Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian Children.”  The project research group has examined some 16,000 Israeli and Jordanian children.  It found that in every 2,000 births, three Israeli babies are deaf, while the figure in Jordan reaches 12 deaf by age 7-8 months.

The Israeli audiologist, who has his degrees in medical sciences, not medicine, wants to get to the root of the difference.  He suggests that the high rate of intermarriage within the extended family may account in part for the sad phenomenon in Jordan , but he wants to delve more deeply into genetic and heredity causes.  He hopes that Palestinian children will be included in the study at a later stage.

The early detection of hearing loss among Jordanian babies in the research study represented a breakthrough of sorts.  Deafness among Israeli children is normally detected around the age of one and babies as young as one month have been given a hearing aid, Attias said.  Among Jordanian children, however, detection doesn’t come until about the age of ten.

“Jordanians hide their deaf,” he explained, because the family is considered to have less worth when the time comes to marrying off children if a sibling is known to be deaf.  It’s not so much a cultural problem as an economic problem.”

Following the signing of a cooperative agreement between Israel and the Royal Jordanian Medical Services, to which some 60% of Jordanian physicians belong and which is a component of the Jordanian army, that led to MEHA, Amman put up a building staffed not only with audiologists, but also with speech therapists and psychologists.  Attias, who served as chief officer for hearing disorders of the Israeli Medical Corps, wants to set up a comparable facility in Israel .   

Since his primary goal is both scientific and clinical, he would like to see such a clinic as part of the Faculty of Social Welfare and Health Studies’ projected community clinic.  “I don’t do science without clinic,” he comments.  “The close connection between the two components is the best way to prove or disprove ideas.”  He is hoping that the University can raise the funds needed for a Chair in Audiology, which he feels would advance research and, therefore, this connection. 

The University of Haifa is one of only two Israeli institutions that offer a Department of Communication Disorders.  The department, only in its second year, has a promising staff, in his opinion.  

In the meantime, Attias hopes that this first MEHA conference in auditory rehabilitation will be, as he put it, “an introduction to further cooperation” among Middle East neighbors.  “A bridge to peace through hearing.”


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