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March 06, 2014

Untreated Ear Infections are Leading Cause of Hearing Loss in Children

by Kim Lewis

A new World Health Organization (WHO) survey reveals that over five percent of the world’s population - 360 million people - are hearing impaired.

The results of a study of 76 countries in regions most affected by hearing loss - Asia Pacific, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa - were released to coincide with March 3 International Ear Care Day. 

The UN agency reports that about half of all cases of hearing loss can be easily treated or prevented. However, only 32 of these countries have programs to prevent and treat hearing loss and most countries studied do not have the capacity to prevent and care for the problem.

The most common cause of hearing loss is ear infections, says Shelly Chadha, who heads WHO’s program for prevention of deafness and hearing loss. 

“The leading cause of hearing loss across the world - based on what we know of hearing loss, is ear infections,” she says.

Some losses appear at birth. “There is also the age-related hearing loss, which is a very important cause, and it is estimated that nearly a third of the population who are above 65 years of age live with hearing loss,” said Chadha. Another cause of hearing loss is unorthodox medications.

Developing countries need strategies that address prevention of hearing loss through simple measures, she says. Examples are immunization, improved maternal and child healthcare, reduction of noise, and good ear-care habits to prevent infection. 

To help address these needs, WHO is providing technical support and guidance to member states so each country can develop their plans for prevention, early identification of children who have hearing loss, and suitable services. Some of those services include diagnosis of ear infections and possible application of antibiotics or surgery to prevent further loss. Access to hearing aids is also recommended.

Chadha emphasized that investing in hearing health from the very early stages of life, is important in maintaining the health of society as a whole.