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Some areas miss out on almost 80pc of checks

It's a scandal that is going unnoticed, but it may result in many children paying a heavy price.

The Irish Independent recently reported that nearly one in three infants is still not receiving vital developmental checks before 10 months of age.

The checks, which can help pick up on hearing, eyesight or mobility problems early on, should be carried out by public health staff before the child is 10 months old.

In many areas of the country the children are getting the screening on time but thousands of others, simply because they are living in a region with a shortage of public health staff, are losing out.

The Health Service Executive (HSE) said the percentage of children receiving their developmental health checks on time at 10 months had increased from 74pc in December 2010 to 77pc at the end of January 2011.

But several areas are continuing to struggle due to staff shortages, including Dublin south-west where just 19pc of infants are being seen within the recommended time.

Staff in Dun Laoghaire are only meeting targets for just 28pc of infants compared to 21pc at the end of last year.

In Galway more than six in every 10 infants failed to get the checks on time in January.

The checks, which should happen between the ages of seven and nine months, are normally carried out by a public health nurse.

The screening allows public health nurses to see if a child is reaching milestones, and examine if there is any dislocation of the hip.

They can carry out a noise test for hearing and check eyes for signs of a squint.

But the moratorium on recruitment means staff who leave are not being replaced.

Dr Paula Gilvarry, a public health specialist with the HSE in Sligo, said that overstretched nurses are having to prioritise urgent care.

"If there are people who need home visits for dressings or if someone is terminally ill they must be seen first.

"The next priority is newborn babies, who must be visited within 48 hours, and then they will get to the children's checks," said Dr Gilvarry, a former president of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO).

She also maintains that it is vital that certain conditions like developmental dysplasia of the hip, which may have been missed during earlier checks, are picked up.

"It is not always apparent at birth. It is important it is found before the child walks, otherwise they are at risk of a permanent limp and arthritis.

"You need specially trained people to do this. It's the mark of a first world country to have a good child health system," she said.

The HSE said measures are now being taken to tackle areas where the rates are particularly low.

Health & Living