More than 1.5 billion people suffer from hearing loss worldwide

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The World Health Organization estimates that in just over two decades, that number will exceed 2.5 billion.

FILE: Experts say the hearing damage suffered now only begins to show up ten to fifteen years later. Photo: © andreypopov/123rf.com

CAPE TOWN – Audiologists are reminding South Africans to better protect their hearing, as more than 1.5 billion people worldwide suffer from hearing loss.

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

Less than 10% of people worldwide have access to treatment for hearing loss, also known as the “invisible epidemic”.

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

“People in need of treatment, such as hearing aids and other amplification devices, currently number nearly 500 million and by 2050 it will be nearly a billion…”

Swanepoel and a team of experts have turned to technology to make healthcare more accessible, which is particularly beneficial in Africa where less than 1% of people with hearing loss have access to treatment.

“By leveraging and capitalizing on digital technology, mobile operators that have really spread across the continent, but at the same time using advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence, to support the diagnosis of diseases of ear…we were able to really expand access in a way that has never been possible before.

Over the past six years, they’ve used smartphone technology to develop a mobile app that lets people take a quick hearing test.

The app, HearZA, was first launched as South Africa’s national hearing test and later taken over by the World Health Organization as the official hearing screening app, hearWHO.

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

“We have also developed additional tests that can then support diagnostic testing from a mobile device, and these are clinical solutions that we provide to community health workers or primary care clinics, from so that instead of having to travel to advanced tertiary facilities where in Africa in most cases they are not available, people on the ground can now offer advanced hearing tests which can then refer individuals towards the right treatments…”

The technology is also being rolled out in local communities, including Khayelitsha in Cape Town, where nearly 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 go to the nearest clinic or day hospital for a follow-up examination.

Swanepoel said similar projects were underway in Tembisa in Johannesburg, and the technology had also been made available to community health workers in Tshwane.

“And they screened nearly twenty thousand adults and in some of the low-resource communities around the town of Tshwane…” the professor said.

These experts have also branched out to the rest of Africa, in Kenya they have partnered with local nurses and clinicians from primary healthcare clinics who also offer these hearing testing and hearing aid services. hearing aids.

“At the time, from the mobile device after they have done the test to clinical standards and because mobile money is the currency in Kenya, they can also subscribe to the hearing aids on the spot, and then from their own mobile phone…we started in five clinics and will now expand to 20 clinics towards the end of the year…”

Audiologists have also developed a smartphone video otoscope, here a small pen-sized camera, that allows caregivers to take high-quality pictures of the eardrum.

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

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

These experts say that the hearing damage suffered now only begins to show up ten to fifteen years later.

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

People who constantly use headphones and plug-in headphones at high intensities and volumes are warned to be aware of the major risks, as an estimated one billion young people are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss.

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