Smartphone technology based on UP research helps young children with hearing and vision problems

Posted on October 03, 2019

A two-minute smartphone test can identify hearing and vision problems before children even start school according to new research published in the prestigious Bulletin of the World Health Organisation.

The University of Pretoria’s (UP) Professor De Wet Swanepoel, lead investigator on this project, says “95% of young children don’t get the chance to have these senses checked before entering school. Children who don't hear or see well can't learn well. As a result these kids can't perform in a school environment.”

Screening is usually unavailable because equipment is so expensive and there is a shortage of trained personnel, such as audiologists.

The mobile health technology used for the community screening project in the Western Cape is provided by the hearX Group, a digital health start-up from South Africa. The hearScreen app, initially developed at UP, provides a quick reliable hearing check that can be operated by community health workers. Vision is checked using the Peek Acuity app provided by the UK-based partner Peek Vision.

Hearing and vision impairments are the most common developmental disabilities in children younger than five years, with more than 40 million children affected globally. Healthy hearing and vision during early childhood is essential for optimal language, speech and educational outcomes. Detecting a problem in these senses early on is very important for early childhood development, emotional well-being and academic success.

The project provides hearing and vision screenings in preschool centres in Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain. Four local community members trained to use the smartphone technology are providing the service to local preschool kids. Results from the first 8 023 children screened across 271 preschools are reported in the WHO Bulletin article. More than a hundred children have already been diagnosed with a hearing or visual impairment, or both. These mobile health apps used by community members provide a low-cost service that can be scaled to reach thousands of children.

This Ears and Eyes for Education project (3E) is supported by a local NGO for children with hearing loss, the Carel du Toit centre, as an implementation partner. Funding is provided through the Swiss-based Hear the World foundation and a Newton Advanced Fellowship Award.

“This research showcases the potential of mobile health innovation to transform the lives of children with hearing and vision problems, especially those from disadvantaged communities,” says Prof Swanepoel.

The success of this project has secured ongoing support from the Google Social Impact Award to ensure the lives of more than 20 000 children are touched.

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