GENEVA, SWITZERLAND–More than 360 million people, about 5% of the world’s population, have disabling hearing loss, according to estimates released by WHO (the World Health Organization) just in time for International Ear Care Day on March 3. That number is more than the total population of the United States or of any other country except for China and India.
Even more striking than the magnitude of the problem is how much of it could be prevented. Shelly Chadha, MD, the medical officer of WHO’s Department of Prevention of Blindness and Deafness, said, “About half of all cases of hearing loss are easily preventable.”
Among the 32 million children under age of 15 who are affected by hearing loss, untreated ear infections are the most common cause, especially in poorer countries. In all age groups, hearing loss is often the result of infectious diseases such as rubella, meningitis, measles, and mumps that can be prevented by vaccination. Other common causes of preventable loss include exposure to excessive noise and the use of medications that can damage hearing when other, non-ototoxic medications could be used instead.
MORE THAN EVER NEED HELP, BUT FEW GET IT
According to WHO, the number of people with hearing loss is the greatest it has ever been. Moreover, as global population increases and ages, the incidence of hearing loss is expected to grow.
Currently, one in three persons over 65 years of age lives with hearing loss. Although most people with hearing loss can be helped with hearing devices, only a small fraction of those who might benefit from such devices has access to them.
Chadha said, “Current production of hearing aids meets less than 10% of global need. In developing countries, fewer than one out of 40 people who need a hearing aid have one.” She added, “WHO is exploring technology transfer as a way to promote access to hearing aids in developing countries.”
WHO encourages countries to make programs for preventing hearing loss part of their primary health care systems. These would include vaccinating children against measles, meningitis, mumps, and rubella; screening and treating syphilis in pregnant women; and instituting early assessment and management of hearing loss in babies.
She also noted that people with hearing loss can benefit from sign language training and social support.
Unfortunately, Dr. Chadha said, many people are discouraged from seeking help for hearing loss. She explained, “The stigma attached to hearing loss and the use of hearing aids is one of the biggest barriers to providing services for hearing loss and improving access to hearing aids. Even where we do try to improve access, very often people are resistant because they do not want to wear a hearing aid.”
WHO says that people with hearing loss who are unable to communicate with others often feel isolated and lonely. In developing countries, children with this disability rarely receive any schooling, while adults who do not hear well have difficulty finding jobs, which damages the overall economy.