Some 900 million people could suffer from disabling hearing loss by 2050, according to new estimates released by the World Health Organization on the occasion of World Hearing Day on 3 March.
Currently 466 million people worldwide suffer from disabling hearing loss, 34 million of whom are children. This is up from 360 million people five years ago.
The main reasons for this increase is a growing ageing population and the persistence of risks such as ear and vaccine-preventable infections like measles, mumps and rubella; the use of medicines that can harm hearing such as those used to treat drug-resistant tuberculosis and malaria; and exposure to loud sounds through personal audio devices and in entertainment venues and workplaces.
“Past trends and future projections predict a vast increase in the number of people with hearing loss,” says Dr Etienne Krug, Director of the WHO Department for Management of Noncommunicable Diseases, Disability, Violence and Injury Prevention. “Unless appropriate action is initiated, nearly one in 10 people could have disabling hearing loss by 2050. This will considerably affect their lives and pose a significant cost to health systems. Governments must act now to prevent this rise and ensure people with hearing loss can access the services and technologies they need.”
Disabling hearing loss affects people in many ways. It impacts on a person’s ability to communicate, socialize, learn, work and enjoy life, contributing to poverty, social isolation and feelings of loneliness. In older people in particular, hearing loss is linked to cognitive decline, increasing the risk of depression and dementia. Unaddressed hearing loss costs countries an estimated US$ 750 billion annually in direct health costs and loss of productivity.
Interventions can reduce hearing loss and its adverse impacts
Overall it is suggested that half of all cases of hearing loss can be prevented; in children, this figure is around 60%. This includes by immunizing children against infectious diseases; screening and treating children who suffer from chronic ear infections; promoting safe childbirth to minimize the risk of asphyxia and neonatal infections associated with hearing loss; avoiding the use of particular drugs harmful to hearing; controlling exposure to loud sounds in occupational and recreational settings; and raising awareness about healthy ear care practices through public health campaigns.
Detecting and intervening early when people do have hearing loss helps to minimize the consequences, especially for children. This is achieved through screening programmes. In cases where hearing loss is unavoidable, it is vital to ensure access to appropriate and affordable assistive technologies such as hearing aids and surgically implanted electronic cochlear implants, and communication services like speech therapy, sign language and captioning.
Governments and partners have a key role to play
To stem the rise in disabling hearing loss, WHO supports governments and their partners to:
- Integrate ear and hearing care into primary health care systems as part of universal health coverage;
- Raise awareness among the public about the prevention of hearing loss;
- Ensure services to treat hearing loss, including access to assistive technologies and communication services;
- Train hearing care professionals;
- Regulate sound exposure on personal audio devices and in entertainment venues and workplaces;
- Empower people with hearing loss to overcome stigma and discrimination.
WHO has also initiated development of a global report and related toolkit on hearing, to provide authoritative evidence on the magnitude of hearing loss globally, as well as its prevention, treatment and rehabilitation.