World Hearing Day is observed on 3 March every year to raise awareness about this invisible and far-reaching epidemic. 2021 marks a global milestone with the launch of the World Report on Hearing (WRH) – an influential multinational stakeholder initiative led by the World Health Organization’s World Hearing Forum. In partnership with the WHO, a group of South African stakeholders has been leading several activities to observe this important event and raise awareness on hearing loss and ear and hearing services in the country.
Disabling hearing loss affects half a billion people globally. In South Africa, more than four million people are living with the condition. 60% of childhood hearing loss can be prevented by managing and preventing ear infections timeously, immunising children against infections that can cause hearing loss, and other interventions. The second most important risk for adult hearing loss, noise exposure, is entirely preventable through safe listening to music and hearing protection in work environments.
In a country where healthcare burdens such as HIV, TB, malnutrition, and the COVID-19 pandemic consume much of the health system’s capacity, hearing loss is seldom afforded sufficient attention or resources. The reality, however, is that unaddressed hearing loss is all too common and comes at a significant cost to individuals, communities and society. The estimated global cost of unaddressed hearing loss is $980 billion. Late diagnosis and intervention, together with social stigma and a lack of support, often leaves people with hearing loss feeling isolated in a world that may not value or include them. When the appropriate support structures are not in place (together with access to information to ensure that communities and systems are inclusive) the impact of their hearing loss on communication renders those affected disconnected; with issues such as unequal education, a lack of access to supportive technologies, and limited access to language support meaning that they remain one of the most marginalised and underserved populations in South Africa.
It is our shared responsibility to see that people who have hearing loss are offered the resources and support that they need to live their best lives and contribute meaningfully to our country. There is also much that can be done to reduce its preventable causes. With this in mind, the World Hearing Forum’s theme for this World Hearing Day is Hearing Health for All - Screen, Rehabilitate, Communicate. The South African steering team for the World Hearing Forum, in collaboration with the WHO Collaborating Centre for Prevention of Deafness and Hearing Loss at the University of Pretoria, is calling on South Africans to align with this theme and respond to the following calls to action:
Screen! There is help for ear infections and diseases, and it is important to get this help early. Everyone should have their hearing checked regularly; from when children are newborn babies, right through their early years. Hearing loss can be very difficult to identify without the right audiological tests, and it will greatly affect a child’s language development and school performance if it is missed. Take preventative action: you can still enjoy music without damaging your hearing. If anyone else can hear the music streamed through your headphones – it is too loud! If you have any hearing concerns, ask to see an audiologist or ENT doctor.
Rehabilitate! There are many different ways of assisting people with hearing loss. Advanced technologies such as hearing aids and cochlear implants can be good options, depending on the hearing loss. Ask an audiologist for guidance in choosing the best option. There is no shame in wearing a hearing device. Being able to communicate with friends and family is something everyone deserves to enjoy.
Communicate! Communication is a human right. Feeling connected to friends and family is part of well-being. There are many ways to support communicating with people who have hearing loss: speak clearly, don’t shout, be patient, learn to communicate with those who use sign language, and have captions available for all news and streamed media. Together we can make a difference for healthy hearing and create a community inclusive of those who experience life differently, where they feel that they belong and are valued as equal members of society. With the Ndlovu Youth Choir serving as the South African and regional champions for the global cause of accessible ear and hearing care, the precious gift of healthy hearing is showcased in the wonder of music – a gift never to be taken for granted.
Advocacy and awareness materials: The following materials are available through WHO website:
Issued by the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Prevention of Deafness and Hearing Loss at the University of Pretoria in collaboration with the South African steering team for the World Hearing Forum, including Prof De Wet Swanepoel from the University of Pretoria, Prof Karin Joubert and Dr Victor de Andrade from the University of the Witwatersrand, Dr Diane Bell from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and Dr Bianca Birdsey from THRIVE Parent Support and Advocacy Group.