De Wet Swanepoel, Professor in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at the University of Pretoria, has been awarded the prestigious Oppenheimer Memorial Trust Grant for 2019, which encourages and acknowledges excellence in scholarship and research.
Candidates from all disciplines compete annually and awards are granted to scholars of the highest calibre who are engaged in cutting-edge and internationally significant work that has particular application to the advancement of knowledge, teaching, research and development in South Africa and beyond.
Prof Swanepoel was recognised for providing a validated hearing screening solution on a smartphone. He and his team have developed and validated a national hearing test for South Africa, hearZA, in partnership with the hearX group. The free App, available in iOS and Android stores, gives a quick two-minute hearing screening test. If a hearing problem is identified users can connect directly with their closest audiologist, in partnership with the national associations for audiologists (SAAA and SASLHA), through the app.
“We employ a speech-in-noise test approach with digits presented in background noise. Our approach has been so successful that the World Health Organization (WHO) now incorporated it into their official hearing screening app that was launched on World Hearing Day 2019. To ensure that this solution can reach a global audience requires further development and validation across different languages. This grant will support a research partnership in China to develop the test in Mandarin.”
According to the WHO, an estimated 466 million people globally have permanent hearing loss, making it one of the most common disabilities and a leading burden of disease. In South Africa more than 3 million people are affected and as many as one in three persons over the age of 65 will have hearing loss.
Prof Swanepoel explained that the grant of R500 000 will support his research in practical ways, including human resource allocations for teaching assistance and research coordination. This allows for a focused approach over a period of time to ensure a successful and timely project outcome.
He said, “I’m fascinated by our sense of hearing. It is the gateway to the world around us connecting us to language, music, nature and the voice of a loved one. We are fortunate to live in a day and age where technologies allow us not only to detect hearing problems early but to provide treatments that can alter the life course for those affected, connecting them to their world.”
He said he was honoured and grateful to receive the prestigious award. “It’s also rewarding to know that the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust recognises our work to be cutting edge, not only for South Africa, but also internationally. My passion has always been to see hearing health become accessible and affordable to everyone, everywhere.”
His future plans are to continue the development and validation of the right technologies and service-delivery models to make this possible.