More than 1.5 billion people suffer hearing loss globally

The World Health Organization estimates that in just more than two decades this number will exceed 2.5 billion.

FILE: Experts say damage suffered to hearing now, only starts manifesting ten to fifteen years down the line. Picture: © andreypopov/123rf.com

CAPE TOWN - Audiologists are reminding South Africans to take better care of protecting their hearing, as over 1.5 billion people globally suffer hearing loss.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that in just more than two decades, this number will exceed 2.5 billion.

Less than 10% of people globally have access to treatment for hearing loss, which is also referred to as the “invisible epidemic”.

University of Pretoria professor of audiology, De Wet Swanepoel, stressed that people should be more aware of the dangers of exposure to very high sound volumes.

“Those people who need treatment, like hearing aids and other amplification devices, currently are close to 500 million and by 2050, it will be close to a billion…”

Swanepoel, and a team of experts, have turned to technology to make healthcare more accessible – this is especially beneficial in Africa where less than 1% of those affected by hearing loss have access to treatment.

“By leveraging and capitalising in digital technology, mobile operators that have really spread across the continent, but at the same time using advanced technologies including artificial intelligence to support diagnosis of ear disease… we’ve been able to really scale access in a way that has never been possible previously.”

They have over the past six years used smartphone technology to develop a mobile application that allows people to do a rapid hearing test.

The app, HearZA, was first launched as the South Africa National Hearing Test and later picked up by the World Health Organization as the official hearing screening app, hearWHO.

Swanepoel said this was one of their first technologies for the consumer market.

“We’ve also developed additional tests that can then support diagnostic testing from a mobile device, and these are clinical solutions that we provide for community health workers or primary healthcare clinics, so that instead of having to go to advanced, tertiary facilities where in Africa in most cases they are unavailable, people on the ground can now offer advanced hearing testing that can then direct individuals to the right treatments…”

The technology is also being rolled out in local communities including Khayelitsha in Cape Town, where close to 50,000 children have been screened for hearing loss.

If they fail the test, an automated message is sent to their parents or guardians advising them to visit their nearest clinic or day hospital for a follow-up examination.

Swanepoel said similar projects have been running in Tembisa in Johannesburg, and the technology has also been made available to community healthcare workers in Tshwane.

“And they screened close to twenty thousand adults and in some of the low resourced communities around the City of Tshwane…” said the professor.

These experts have also branched out into the rest of Africa, in Kenya, they’ve partnered with local primary healthcare clinic nurses and - clinicians who also offer these hearing testing services, and hearing-aid fittings.

“Right there and then, from the mobile device after they’ve done the test to clinical standards and because mobile money is you know the currency in Kenya, they can also subscribe to the hearing aids right there and then from their own mobile phone… we started in five clinics and we’re now scaling this to 20 clinics towards the end of the year…”

Audiologists have also developed a smartphone video otoscope, here a little camera the size of a pen, allows healthcare workers to take high quality pictures of the eardrum.

Swanepoel says together with the University of Pretoria’s Engineering Faculty and the hearX Group, they've designed an artificial intelligence system that analyses the image and based on feature extraction could diagnose the type of ear disease a patient suffers from.

“We developed this probably five, six years ago…the first of its kind and it allows us to provide a kind-of diagnostic service in low-resource settings where no specialists are available, so it’s almost like having a specialist in your pocket on your mobile device.”

These experts say damage suffered to hearing now, only starts manifesting ten to fifteen years down the line.

“It’s also important to remember that young children are very prone to hearing loss due to middle ear disease or they may have permanent hearing loss and if a child is not tested early and hearing loss not picked up at an early age those children can oftentimes have lifelong consequences in terms of language, general development and also their contribution to society. It’s important to be aware of it… sometimes when people are not listening and they’re not cooperating, it may actually be because they have a hearing problem and it’s important to see an audiologist or go to your closest clinic so that someone can just take a look at the ears…”

People continuously using headphones and plug-in earbuds at high intensities and loud volumes are being warned to be mindful of the major risks, as an estimated one billion youngsters are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss.