The Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at the University of Pretoria (UP) has been formally designated as a World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for the prevention of deafness and hearing loss.
Disabling hearing loss affects almost 500 million people globally. Africa is particularly hard hit, with treatments such as hearing aids reaching less than 3% of those who need them. This is the first WHO Collaborating Centre in Africa, and a big step towards improving hearing healthcare on the continent. With hearing loss expected to double in sub-Saharan Africa by 2040, the centre is a timely initiative with significant aspirations.
“This designation recognises the influential research conducted at UP to improve hearing care in Africa,” says Professor Leigh Biagio-De Jager, Head of Audiology at UP and of the WHO Collaborating Centre.
The department’s Professor De Wet Swanepoel leads the research group and will pursue the priorities of the centre. He is a longstanding WHO collaborator and has served on several working groups, including the WHO’s Make Listening Safe initiative. His research has been instrumental in the development of the widely used hearWHO smartphone screening app, which was launched on World Hearing Day in 2018. This innovation was based on his pioneering work on hearZA, an award-winning app that was launched in 2016 as the national hearing test of South Africa. In partnership with the hearX Group, a digital-health company that was founded as a result of research at UP, more than 200 000 people’s lives have been improved in Africa.
“Access to hearing care is a global priority that is more pressing in Africa than anywhere in the world,” says Prof Swanepoel. “Equitable hearing care across the continent is therefore at the heart of the centre’s vision.”
The new centre creates a prominent platform to expand partnerships and build capacity across sub-Saharan Africa in hearing care. In line with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the centre will support the development and implementation of accessible ear and hearing services in Africa. Ongoing initiatives include the development and evaluation of new technologies and methodologies to collect population data, community-based screening by health workers, and training for primary ear and hearing care.