Nearly 2.5 billion people worldwide ─ or 1 in 4 people ─ will be living with some degree of hearing loss by 2050, warns the World Health Organization’s (WHO) first World Report on Hearing, released on 3 March 2021. At least 700 million of these people will require access to ear and hearing care and other rehabilitation services unless action is taken.
„Our ability to hear is precious. Untreated hearing loss can have a devastating impact on people’s ability to communicate, to study and to earn a living. It can also impact on people’s mental health and their ability to sustain relationships,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “This new report outlines the scale of the problem, but also offers solutions in the form of evidence-based interventions that we encourage all countries to integrate into their health systems as part of their journey towards universal health coverage.”
Investment in ear and hearing care has been shown to be cost-effective: WHO calculates that governments can expect a return of nearly US$16 for every US$1 invested.
Main findings of the report
Lack of accurate information and stigmatizing attitudes to ear diseases and hearing loss often limit people from accessing care for these conditions. Even among health-care providers, there’s often a shortage of knowledge about prevention, early identification and management of hearing loss and ear diseases, hampering their ability to provide the care required.
In most countries, ear and hearing care is still not integrated into national health systems and accessing care services is challenging for those with ear diseases and hearing loss. Moreover, access to ear and hearing care is poorly measured and documented, and relevant indicators are lacking in the health information system.
But the most glaring gap in health system capacity is in human resources. Among low-income countries, about 78% have fewer than one ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist per million population; 93% have fewer than one audiologist per million; only 17% have one or more speech therapist per million; and 50% have one or more teacher for the deaf per million. This gap can be closed through integration of ear and hearing care into primary health care through strategies such as task sharing and training, outlined in the report.
Globally, 1.5 billion people live with some degrees of hearing loss out of which around 430 million people require rehabilitation services for their hearing loss.
By 2050 nearly 2.5 billion people are projected to have some degree of hearing loss and at least 700 will require hearing rehabilitation.
Hearing loss may result from genetic causes, complications at birth, certain infectious diseases, chronic ear infections, exposure to loud sounds, use of ototoxic medicines, and ageing.
In children, almost 60% of hearing loss is due to causes such as ear infections and birth complications that can be prevented through public health measures.
Over 1 billion young adults are at risk of permanent, avoidable hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices.
Unaddressed hearing loss is expensive to communities worldwide and costs governments US$980 billion annually. Interventions to prevent, identify and address hearing loss are cost-effective and can bring great benefit to individuals.
Of those who could benefit with the use of a hearing aid, only 17% actually use one. The gap is consistently high in all parts of the world, ranging from 77% to 83% across WHO regions, and from 74% to 90% across income levels.
Access to timely and appropriate care
Once diagnosed, early intervention is key. Medical and surgical treatment can cure most ear diseases, potentially reversing the associated hearing loss. However, where hearing loss is irreversible, rehabilitation can ensure that those affected avoid the adverse consequences of hearing loss. A range of effective options are available.
Hearing technology, such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, when accompanied by appropriate support services and rehabilitative therapy are effective and cost-effective and can benefit children and adults alike.
“To ensure that the benefit of these technological advances and solutions is equitably accessible to all, countries must adopt an integrated people-centred approach,” said Dr Bente Mikkelsen, Director of the WHO Department of Noncommunicable Diseases. “Integrating ear and hearing care interventions within national health plans and delivering these through strengthened health systems, as part of universal health coverage, is essential to meet the needs of those at risk of or living with hearing loss.”