By Erin O’Donnell, Associate Director of Education and Global Health Programs
Hearing Health Ascends into Global Awareness
Shrill sounds blared from the boombox and ricocheted off the polished tile floors. A room of 5-year-old girls stomped their flamenco heels, swung their long skirts and clicked their castanuelas in time to the emotive, Andalusian folk songs.
I loved to dance. What I liked considerably less were the earplugs my mom forced me to wear. She was a determined parent and I was a compliant preschooler. I endured the prodding of fingers at their gray wax, the stream of questions I could guess at but not answer, and the uncomfortable staring. Wearing never-before-seen earplugs at the village flamenco class added reason for the little Spanish girls to scrutinize the strange, blonde-haired newcomer and did little for my attempt at assimilation. But today, I am grateful for my mother’s insistence on safeguarding my young ears. This was a world that lacked public awareness of the dangers of soaring decibels. Twenty-five years on, and that world is rapidly changing.
When people ask about my work life, and I speak of “global hearing health,” I am met with expressions conveying confusion and curiosity. While “global health” has been adopted into vernacular and correlates to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) promoting healthy lives and well-being for all, “global hearing health” is still an emergent term in most circles. However, with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) historic resolution (WHA70.13) in 2017 prioritizing the prevention of deafness and hearing loss, global hearing health now finds itself in the ranks of such prominent public health initiatives as mental health awareness, maternal, child, and newborn health, and HIV/AIDS prevention.
The House Institute is Poised to Make a Difference
Global hearing health is synergistic with the House Institute’s other mission areas of ear and hearing research and education for professionals and the public. The House Institute continues to forge long-term partnerships with sustainable programs in low to middle-income countries, sending resources and teams to support surgical and audiological efforts as well as to train local health care providers. Direct service from our faculty and clinical fellows can only go so far. To scale our impact, we are developing a Global Otology Coordination Center. This online platform will help orchestrate worldwide humanitarian efforts in several ways. First, it will provide a comprehensive directory of overseas projects that meet strict sustainability criteria. Second, it will strengthen the network of active hearing care professionals by facilitating communication, sharing volunteer needs, and identifying opportunities for collaboration. It will also offer valuable insight into the successes and lessons learned of current efforts. Last, it will constitute a repository of data and observations that could prompt revelatory research into the underlying causes of diseases with unusually high prevalence in some geographic regions.
In conjunction with increased access to medical care, we are committed to sharing hearing health information that empowers individuals to take responsibility for their hearing conservation. Indeed, 60% of childhood hearing loss is due to preventable causes. Additionally, 1.1 billion young people between the ages of 12 and 35 are at risk of hearing loss due to exposure to noise in recreational settings. Other causes of preventable hearing loss require regulation, such as mitigating occupational noise or reducing the presence of ototoxic substances in workplace settings. In both instances, effective public health campaigns that generate awareness about damaging noise levels are crucial. These include safer listening practices on personal audio devices and the use of appropriate ear protection for activities that may seem as innocuous as vacuuming, mowing the lawn, going to movie theaters, or playing the violin.
The WHO’s World Hearing Report will be released on March 3, 2021, World Hearing Day. This document will include evidence-based ear and hearing care recommendations for government and civil society. The WHO estimates that lack of awareness around hearing loss coupled with the unmet need for medical intervention poses an overall annual cost of $750 billion, not to mention an immeasurable impact on the lives of those affected. It is estimated that by 2050 more than 900 million people will have disabling hearing loss. But this does not have to be our collective story. As reforms to primary healthcare and education systems occur worldwide, it is incumbent on us and others in the field to share the framework presented in the World Hearing Report and to advocate for its strategic integration. Now is the time to ensure that unified messaging communicating the importance of hearing health and promoting best practices reach the ears of decision-makers across sectors, urging them to translate these findings into newly minted policy and curricula that address the growing epidemic of hearing loss.
When Dr. Howard P. House founded the House Institute Foundation (then called the Los Angeles Foundation of Otology) in 1946, his mission “so all may hear” may have seemed more aspirational than attainable. As we find ourselves on the brink of an international movement underpinned by a multi-faceted approach to improve hearing health, his vision, now our vision, is more possible than ever.
Learn more at: who.int/deafness/world-report-hearing/en