By Joyce Mukucha
As the world commemorated the World Hearing Day on March 3 that ran under the theme “Hearing Care for ALL! Screen, Rehabilitate, Communicate”, the World Health Organisation (WHO) in its first World Report on Hearing, released Tuesday warned that approximately 2.5 billion people worldwide or 1 in 4 people will be living with some degree of hearing loss by 2050.
At least 700 million of these people, it has been highlighted, will require access to ear and hearing care and other rehabilitation services unless action is taken. The WHO urged governments to act to integrate person-centred ear and hearing care within national health plans for universal health coverage.
“Timely action is needed to prevent and address hearing loss across the life course. Investing in cost-effective interventions will benefit people with hearing loss and bring financial gains to society.
“This new report outlines the scale of the problem, but also offers solutions in the form of evidence-based interventions that we encourage all countries to integrate into their health systems as part of their journey towards universal health coverage,” said WHO.
WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “Our ability to hear is precious. Untreated hearing loss can have a devastating impact on people’s ability to communicate, study, and earn a living. It can also impact on people’s mental health and their ability to sustain relationships.”
The report also underlined the need to rapidly step up efforts to prevent and address hearing loss by investing and expanding access to ear and hearing care services.
“Investment in ear and hearing care has been shown to be cost-effective. WHO calculates that governments can expect a return of nearly US$ 16 for every US$ 1 invested.”
According to the report’s findings, lack of accurate information and stigmatizing attitudes to ear diseases and hearing loss often limit people from accessing care for these conditions.
“Even among health-care providers, there’s often a shortage of knowledge about prevention, early identification, and management of hearing loss and ear diseases, hampering their ability to provide the care required.”
The report also highlighted that in most countries, ear and hearing care is still not integrated into national health systems, and accessing care services is challenging for those with ear diseases and hearing loss.
“Moreover, access to ear and hearing care is poorly measured and documented, and relevant indicators are lacking in the health information system.”
The most glaring gap, the report outlined, in health system capacity is in human resources and among low-income countries, about 78% have fewer than one ear, nose, and throat specialist per million population; 93% have fewer than one audiologist per million; only 17% have one or more speech therapist per million, and 50% have one or more teacher for the deaf per million.
“This gap can be closed through the integration of ear and hearing care into primary health care through strategies such as task sharing and training, outlined in the report.”
Even in countries with relatively high proportions of ear and hearing care professionals, it has been underscored, there is an unequal distribution of specialists.
“This not only poses challenges for people in need of care but also places unreasonable demands on the cadres providing these services.”
Articulating main causes of hearing loss, WHO’s report indicated that in children, almost 60% of hearing loss can be prevented through measures such as immunization for the prevention of rubella and meningitis, improved maternal and neonatal care, and screening for, and early management of, otitis media inflammatory diseases of the middle ear.
In adults, noise control, safe listening, and surveillance of ototoxic medicines together with good ear hygiene can help maintain good hearing and reduce the potential for hearing loss.
WHO stressed that identification is the first step in addressing hearing loss and related ear diseases.
“Clinical screening at strategic points in life ensures that any loss of hearing and ear diseases can be identified as early as possible. Recent technological advances, including accurate and easy-to-use tools, can identify ear disease and hearing loss at any age, in clinical or community settings, and with limited training and resources.”
Screening, the report further indicated, can even take place in challenging situations such as those encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic and those living in underserved and remote areas of the world indicating that access to timely and appropriate care is imperative.
“Once diagnosed, early intervention is key. Medical and surgical treatment can cure most ear diseases, potentially reversing the associated hearing loss. However, where hearing loss is irreversible, rehabilitation can ensure that those affected avoid the adverse consequences of hearing loss. A range of effective options are available.
“Hearing technology, such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, when accompanied by appropriate support services and rehabilitative therapy are effective and cost-effective and can benefit children and adults alike.”
The report notes that the use of sign language and other means of sensory substitution such as speech reading are important options for many deaf people; hearing assistive technology and services such as captioning and sign language interpretation can further improve access to communication and education for those with hearing loss.
“To ensure that the benefit of these technological advances and solutions is equitably accessible to all, countries must adopt an integrated people-centered approach,” said Dr. Bente Mikkelsen, Director of the WHO Department of Noncommunicable Diseases.
WHO emphasised that integrating ear and hearing care interventions within national health plans and delivering these through strengthened health systems, as part of universal health coverage, is essential to meet the needs of those at risk of or living with hearing loss.
World Hearing Day is held on 3 March each year to raise awareness on how to prevent deafness and hearing loss and promote ear and hearing care across the world.
Each year, WHO invites all stakeholders to join this global initiative as it decides the theme and develops evidence-based advocacy materials such as brochures, flyers, posters, banners, infographics, and presentations, among others.
These materials are shared with partners in government and civil society around the world as well as WHO regional and country offices. At its headquarters in Geneva, WHO organizes an annual World Hearing Day event.
In recent years, an increasing number of the Member States and other partner agencies have joined World Hearing Day by hosting a range of activities and events in their countries.