Perdeby sat down with hearX group co-founder, Professor De Wet Swanepoel from UP in conjunction with World Hearing Day, which will take place on 3 March. According to the South African Journal of Communication Disorders (SAJCD), the need for urgent action to prevent ear and hearing problems is a priority, especially because in many cases permanent hearing loss is preventable.
Can you elaborate on some of the major hearing problems faced by South Africans?
There’re obviously children who often have hearing loss which is quite common in youngsters entering the schooling system, and hearing is the gateway to learning. If you can’t hear well at school then you are not going to be able to learn well. Childhood hearing loss is an important contributor. Some of it is permanent, in other words, there is damage to the hearing organ. Some of it may not be permanent, it may be an infection they might have, like middle ear infection for example. Then we have adult hearing loss. The most important causes of adult hearing loss are aging and noise exposure. The problem with most hearing losses is once you lose it you can’t get it back.
What are some of the indicators of hearing loss to look out for?
In children, parents should be on the lookout for kids who are not responding well to sound or who are struggling in school. The first thing we want to look at is, are they actually hearing well, do [they] ask to have the television louder than really is necessary. In adults, it is usually the significant other who picks up that they have hearing loss. They usually have problems in a restaurant environment or coffee shop where there is a lot of background noise and suddenly it becomes very difficult for them to communicate effectively. Often times, people start extracting themselves from social environments because it just takes so much energy to be able to communicate in those settings. The advice is that if there is any concern you should find out what your hearing status is because knowledge is power. If you know then you can actually do something about it.
What are the goals in connection with World Hearing Day?
It’s to increase awareness around hearing loss so that people actually go to the trouble to find out what their hearing status is. [It] is referred to as an ‘invisible epidemic’ because people don’t see it. It is an epidemic because it is so extremely common. Globally, WHO estimates indicate that one in seven [people] have some degree of hearing loss.
Can you tell us more about the HearZA application?
We developed this app at UP, it took us 3 years to do the research, we published it and then we launched it on World Hearing Day in 2016 as South Africa’s national hearing test. It’s a free app that you can download on Android or iOS [and] you get three free hearing test credits. Every year we give you a new test credit so that you can monitor it and track it over time. The most important thing for us here is that we want people to know what their hearing status is so that they can do something about it. If your hearing is fine the app allows you to track it over time and build a personal profile. A year from now you will get an in-app notification that says you should retest your hearing. If the app tells you that you have a hearing problem it encourages you to connect to your closest audiologist. We’ve partnered with the two national associations for audiologists in South Africa, so their members are listed in the app. So, based on your location, you can be directly referred to the nearest hearing health-care providers.
The 2018 theme is “Hear the future”, what goals does this theme carry?
The idea with “Hear the future” (which is a WHO campaign) is to think about both the cost that hearing loss has for governments’ economies if we don’t intervene now, and for individuals. The longer you wait to actually try out some kind of intervention, the more difficult it becomes. It’s about thinking about the future and thinking about the fact that hearing loss is actually increasing globally due to our aging world population. At the moment, there are about 1.3 billion people that have hearing loss. But, in five or ten years from now that figure will be even higher. The earlier you know, the earlier you can get help, and the better your outcomes will be.
Image: Anotidashe Mukombachoto