All newborns' hearing will be tested in hospitals after their birth, according to a Health Ministry directive effective Friday. Until now the screening was conducted in only some hospitals, on a voluntary basis, even though identifying babies with hearing problems and treating them early with hearing aids or cochlear implants can prevent serious cognitive and developmental difficulties and other forms of environmental retardation. The program was pushed by former Health Ministry director-general Prof. Avi Yisraeli. Modern technology allows infants to be screened noninvasively, painlessly and electronically, even if they are asleep. "Hearing problems occur in an average of three out of 1,000 newborns, but in those at high risk due to genetic problems, the risk is eight times higher," says Dr. Ilana Fuek, head of the otolaryngology department at Carmel Medical Center in Haifa. About half of the babies with hearing disabilities have no known risk factors. Dr. Avi Rothschild, head of pediatrics at Carmel, said all the babies born in the hospital will be tested within 24 hours of delivery. Without screening, hearing disability becomes evident only by four to six months after birth. Any babies found to have a problem in the initial screening are tested with a device called an ABR, which examines the auditory nerves and the brain stem; doctors use the results to determine treatment and follow-up.