Invisible epidemic affecting 80% of the global population



Published Mar 8, 2024



The University of Pretoria’s WHO Collaborating Centre for the Prevention of Deafness and Hearing Loss is leading transformative efforts to address global hearing loss.

Unmet ear and hearing care needs affect more than 80% of the world’s population and cost nearly $1 trillion (R19 trillion) annually as a result of unaddressed hearing loss.

World Hearing Day is observed across the globe annually on March 3. This year’s theme, “Changing mindsets: ear and hearing care for all, let’s make it a reality”, is a call for global collaboration to meet the unmet ear and hearing care needs. Hearing loss is an invisible epidemic that affects millions of lives due to the lack of accessible care and societal biases.

In Africa, the repercussions of unmet ear and hearing care needs are especially severe, as the continent grapples with the most acute manifestations of this invisible epidemic.

Our work at the University of Pretoria, especially within the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, is leading the efforts towards improving access to hearing care. Through the integration of smart, innovative digital technologies, we are redefining service delivery models.

Thee technologies enable community health workers in low-income settings to perform essential screenings and clinical assessments. This facilitates the provision of hearing aids, which is a significant step towards accessible and equitable care for all.

The Atteridgeville project, a collaboration with the hearX Foundation and the Clinton Health Access Initiative, illustrates our commitment to community-based care. The project provides a blueprint for affordable hearing care models and emphasises the importance of partnerships in achieving our goals.

Through such initiatives, we aim to bridge the gap between the need for hearing care and the services provided, particularly in underserved communities.

Our joint World Hearing Day event on March 3 in Atteridgeville provided free hearing screenings to young children and adults, alongside awareness workshops facilitated by students from the University of Pretoria.

The global challenge of hearing loss is daunting but not insurmountable.

With an estimated 2.5 billion people projected to live with some degree of hearing loss by 2050, the need for comprehensive, accessible care has never been more urgent. Our efforts, guided by the WHO's World Report on Hearing, aim to ensure that no individual suffers from preventable hearing loss and that those affected can achieve their full potential through rehabilitation, education and empowerment.

Our research, for example, has pioneered smartphone-based hearing tests for school-based hearing screening. This allows accurate testing using automated technologies that people with minimal training can facilitate.

A partnership between the hearX Group and University of Pretoria has made the ground-breaking technologies widely accessible, underscoring a shared commitment to hearing health for everyone, everywhere. The collaboration embodies a philosophy dedicated to leveraging smart digital solutions for hearing care that anyone can use, anywhere in the world.

Our initiatives extend beyond the borders of South Africa. By prioritising the evaluation of service-delivery models that decentralise access and leverage digital technologies, we are setting a global example.

In partnership with the WHO and the hearX Group, we have also supported the launch of the WHO hearing screening application called hearWHO. The smartphone application is free to download and offers a rapid and reliable screening test. To date, close to 500 million tests in 191 countries have been provided through the innovative solution.

Another major barrier to hearing care is that once identified with hearing loss, accessing the appropriate treatment is an uphill battle. According to the WHO report, 83% of the people in need of hearing aids can’t access them. This underscores the critical need for the work we are doing in African communities particularly.

The WHO will launch its guideline document for the provision of hearing aids in low-income communities in March – this is a significant step that will address the service gap. The foundational feasibility research for the initiative was spearheaded by the WHO Collaborating Centre at the University of Pretoria, in partnership with the hearX Foundation. By addressing this service gap, we are improving individual lives and making a significant economic impact, reducing the global burden of unaddressed hearing loss.

This World Hearing Day, we extended a call for action to governments, civil society, and stakeholders worldwide. We must integrate ear and hearing care into national health systems, adopt people-centred approaches, and ensure that innovative solutions reach those in need.

Our collective efforts can transform lives, enabling individuals to hear, be heard and thrive.

Let us remember that changing mindsets is more than altering perceptions; it is about fostering a world where comprehensive, accessible hearing care is a reality for everyone. As we commemorate World Hearing Day 2024, we recommit ourselves to this vision, inspired by the potential to make ear and hearing care accessible for all, regardless of where they live or their economic status.

Swanepoel is the professor of audiology at the University of Pretoria and Research Director for the WHO Collaborating Centre for Prevention of Deafness and Hearing Loss.

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