While Americans have a variety of hearing healthcare professionals to choose from right in their own backyard, the same isn't true for citizens of many other countries according to the results of a new survey by the World Health Organization's (WHO)Unit for Prevention of Blindness and Deafness.
WHO conducted a survey of its Member States in 2012 to assess which have health plans for hearing care. Of the 154 surveys distributed through the ministries of health, 76 were completed. The results of the survey were released on March 3 in conjunction with WHO's Ear Care Day, the organization's annual event.
The assessment was a follow up to a 1995 World Health Assembly resolution which recognized that hearing problems could prevent a country's population from reaching its full development potential because of the adverse effects hearing impairment has on an individual's education, communication skills and earning potential. The resolution urged its 154 Member States to develop plans to address this need.
In the report's introductory letter, Dr. Oleg Chestnov, WHO Assistant-Director General, Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health, said 360 million people globally live with disabling hearing loss. Of them, 32 million are children with hearing loss. The majority of ear problems for children, especially those in low- and middle-income countries, are treatable conditions such as chronic ear infections and noise, or diseases such as meningitis and rubella.
Chronic ear infections respond well to antibiotics; vaccines prevent the onset of infectious diseases such as rubella, meningitis, measles or mumps.
Only 32 of the 76 countries who responded indicated they have plans in place to address the prevention and treatment of ear diseases and hearing loss. Those who did not have plans in place cited a variety of reasons, among them other more pressing health issues and lack of funding. The highest prevalence of hearing loss is found in Asia Pacific, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Although most acknowledged they have a desire to develop programs for ear health, 53 percent said they did not have sufficient human resources, such as audiologists, ENTs, speech therapists and teachers for the deaf and hearing impaired, as well as educational facilities to address the needs of those with hearing impairments. The majority of countries reporting the availability of these human resources came from high and upper-middle income countries.
“The results of this survey are a clear call to action for governments and partners to invest in hearing care especially at community and primary level,” says Dr Etienne Krug, Director of the WHO Department of Violence and Injury Prevention and Disability. “The programmes must aim to benefit all, including disadvantaged parts of the population who are least able to access hearing services.”
WHO believes it's necessary to promote the relationship between hearing loss and other health problems in order to elevate hearing health's importance in the overall health of a country's residents.
Untreated hearing loss can lead to high blood pressure and dementia as well as a variety of social-economic issues including anxiety, depression and social isolation. Hearing loss may also be the underlying symptom of much larger health problems, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes.
In children, untreated hearing loss can effect speech development, interpersonal skills and education. Infant screenings for hearing problems can minimize these developmental issues.
“Ear and hearing problems and the use of hearing aids are often associated with myths and misconceptions”, said Dr Shelly Chadha of the WHO unit for the Prevention of Blindness and Deafness. “National programmes should therefore not only focus on prevention and service provision but also on awareness raising.”
In the United States alone, hearing loss is the third leading chronic condition among older Americans. Untreated hearing loss costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars each year in medical costs related to fall injuries as well as long-term care costs associated with dementia and Alzheimer's. According to the National Institute on Deafness, 80 percent of all hearing loss goes untreated every year. Those who do invest in hearing aids wait an average of seven years before seeking treatment.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have Early Hearing Detection and Intervention (EHDI) laws or voluntary compliance programs for infants.
The World Health Organization
WHO directs and coordinates health within the United Nations system. It is responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, communicating options based on the data its acquired, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends. All countries which are members of the United Nations may become members of WHO by accepting its constitutions, others may become members by a majority vote of the World Health Assembly. Currently, there are 154 Member States.