360m people in world have disabling hearing loss

KARACHI: Three hundred sixty million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss, which could result from genetic causes, complications at birth, certain infectious diseases, chronic ear infections, the use of particular drugs, exposure to excessive noise and ageing.

According to a WHO report from Geneva, half of all cases of hearing loss are avoidable through primary prevention. People with hearing loss can benefit from hearing aids, cochlear implants and other assistive devices; captioning and sign language; and other forms of educational and social support. Current production of hearing aids meets less than 10% of global need.

Over 5% of the world’s population – 360 million people – has disabling hearing loss (328 million adults and 32 million children). Disabling hearing loss refers to hearing loss greater than 40 decibels (dB) in the better hearing ear in adults and a hearing loss greater than 30 dB in the better hearing ear in children. The majority of people with disabling hearing loss live in low- and middle-income countries.

Approximately one-third of people over 65 years of age are affected by disabling hearing loss. The prevalence in this age group is greatest in South Asia, Asia Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa. A person who is not able to hear as well as someone with normal hearing – hearing thresholds of 25 dB or better in both ears – is said to have hearing loss. Hearing loss may be mild, moderate, severe or profound. It can affect one ear or both ears, and leads to difficulty in hearing conversational speech or loud sounds.

‘Hard of hearing’ refers to people with hearing loss ranging from mild to severe. They usually communicate through spoken language and can benefit from hearing aids, cochlear implants and other assistive devices as well as captioning. People with more significant hearing losses may benefit from cochlear implants. The causes of hearing loss and deafness can be divided into congenital causes and acquired causes.

Congenital causes

Congenital causes may lead to hearing loss being present at or acquired soon after birth. Hearing loss can be caused by hereditary and non-hereditary genetic factors or by certain complications during pregnancy and childbirth, including:

Among children, chronic otitis media is the leading cause of hearing loss. One of the main impacts of hearing loss is on the individual’s ability to communicate with others. Spoken language development is often delayed in children with deafness.

Hearing loss and ear diseases such as otitis media can have a significantly adverse effect on the academic performance of children. However, when opportunities are provided for people with hearing loss to communicate, they can participate on an equal basis with others. The communication may be through spoken/-written language or through sign language.

Social and emotional impact

Limited access to services and exclusion from communication can have a significant impact on everyday life, causing feelings of loneliness, isolation and frustration, particularly among older people with hearing loss. If a person with congenital deafness has not been given the opportunity to learn sign language as a child, he or she may feel excluded from social interaction.

Economic impact

In developing countries, children with hearing loss and deafness rarely receive any schooling. Adults with hearing loss also have a much higher unemployment rate. Among those who are employed, a higher percentage of people with hearing loss are in the lower grades of employment compared with the general workforce. Improving access to education and vocational rehabilitation services, and raising awareness especially among employers about the needs of people with hearing loss, would decrease unemployment rates among this group.

Early detection and intervention are crucial to minimizing the impact of hearing loss on a child’s development and educational achievements. In infants and young children with hearing loss, early identification and management through infant hearing screening programmes can improve the linguistic and educational outcomes for the child. Children with deafness should be given the opportunity to learn sign language along with their families.

People with hearing loss can benefit from the use of hearing devices, such as hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other assistive devices. They may also benefit from speech therapy, aural rehabilitation and other related services. However, global production of hearing aids meets less than 10% of global need and less than 3% of developing countries’ needs. The lack of availability of services for fitting and maintaining these devices, and the lack of batteries are also barriers in many low-income settings. Making properly-fitted, affordable hearing aids and cochlear implants and providing accessible follow-up services in all parts of the world will benefit many people with hearing loss.

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