Latino and African-American children are less likely than white children to receive care for ear infections, according to a new study published in the journal Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery and reported by UCLA News.

Ear infections are one of the most common health issues for children, and severe infections can lead to serious problems such as hearing loss, speech impediments and meningitis (inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, which can cause vomiting, fever and even death). While ear infections are highly treatable, researchers found that Latino and African-American children are less likely to afford prescription medications, have medical insurance or see a specialist.

“Our goal was to provide an accurate demographic picture of the U.S. so that we could identify disparities to target for intervention,” said study coauthor Nina Shapiro, MD, director of pediatric otolaryngology at Mattel Children’s Hospital at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Clearly, we found that children of certain ethnicities who suffer from frequent ear infections are more likely to face greater barriers to care. This information provides an opportunity for improvements in our current health care reform.”

For the study, researchers used data taken from the National Health Interview Survey, which is a representative sample of the U.S. population. Parents with young children filled out surveys about their children’s ear infections, and then researchers pulled their demographic data from that.

Researchers found that only 17.5 percent of Latino children reported having access to care compared with 20 percent of African-American children and 29.2 percent of white children. They also found that 18.2 percent of Latino children were uninsured compared with 16.6 percent of African-American children and 6.5 percent of white children. Finally, researchers found that 19.8 percent of Latino children and 28.4 percent of African-American children visited the emergency room at least twice for ear infections over a 12-month period, compared with 15.5 percent of white children.

“Emergency room visits for ear infections by African-American and Hispanic children may represent their source of primary care services, which is more costly and a significant burden on the health care system,” Shapiro said. “This finding, along with the fact that fewer Hispanic and African-American children were insured or received specialty care, highlights the importance of targeting interventions that help children with frequent ear infections.”

For the next step, researchers will monitor whether health care reform affects this situation for Latino and black children.