A World Health Organisation report has found that increasing access to hearing devices is ‘a sound investment’. Are decision-makers listening?
For individuals, hearing loss can have a profound impact on quality of life: they lose independence, educational opportunities and earning power. Some people also suffer social isolation, lost confidence and a decline in wellbeing.
Now consider the fact that over 5% of the world’s population – that’s 360 million people – are living with disabling hearing loss. In addition to the personal burden borne by millions, the global impact on societies and economies is enormous.
Many of those 360 million people require support from their families, communities and – where available – social insurance funds. But there are actions that can be taken to address this serious issue.
A sound investment
The burden of deafness and hearing problems has come into sharp focus in the wake of a WHO report entitled ‘Action for hearing loss: make a sound investment’. The report looks at the economic impact of hearing loss and the cost of intervening to restore hearing using devices such as hearing aids and cochlear implants.
These technologies require investment. The big question for the WHO experts behind the report was how the cost of treating hearing loss compares to the cost of inaction. The answer was clear: doing nothing is simply not an option.
According to the WHO, the cost of hearing loss runs to around $750 billion per year. On the other side of the scales, the total cost of hearing care globally is estimated to be around $15 billion annually. ‘Provision of hearing devices is a cost-effective strategy, especially when used regularly and supported with rehabilitation service,’ according to the report.
Screening children and adults aged over 50 is also considered to be a wise use of resources as it offered opportunities to intervene, thus limiting the long-term burden on individuals and society.
Who is affected?
A number of factors influence hearing loss, including genetics, complications at birth, certain infectious diseases, the use of particular drugs, exposure to excessive noise and ageing.
Low and middle-income countries have higher rates of hearing loss but the burden in Europe is significant – and likely to grow as populations age. An estimated 52 million European adults are affected by hearing loss.
In fact, hearing problems are cited as the biggest single cause of years lost to disability in people aged 70 or older. In that age group, one in five people suffer some degree of hearing loss.
At the same time, we are increasingly reminded of the need for older people to remain economically active for longer. Whether as members of the workforce or as providers of unpaid (but still valuable) care to family members, the ability to communicate is a priceless skill.
Time for action
Translating the WHO report into action by policymakers and other health stakeholders can help to ensure appropriate investments are made today that will pay off for years to come. In May, the World Health Assembly adopted a new resolution on the prevention of deafness and hearing loss.
This resolution called for:
- Greater awareness at all levels of stronger political commitment
- Training programmes to develop the required human resources in ear and hearing care
- The development, implementation and monitoring of screening programmes for infants, young children and older adults
- Improved access to affordable, cost-effective, high-quality technologies such as cochlear implants
With Europe’s ageing population at growing risk of hearing problems, isn’t it time that these calls were heard?