Bulletin of the World Health Organization

The global burden of disabling hearing impairment: a call to action

Bolajoko O Olusanya, Katrin J Neumann & James E Saunders

At any age, disabling hearing impairment has a profound impact on interpersonal communication, psychosocial well-being, quality of life and economic independence. According to the World Health Organization’s estimates, the number of people with such impairment increased from 42 million in 1985 to about 360 million in 2011. This last figure includes 7.5 million children less than 5 years of age. In 1995, a “roadmap” for curtailing the burden posed by disabling hearing impairment was outlined in a resolution of the World Health Assembly. While the underlying principle of this roadmap remains valid and relevant, some updating is required to reflect the prevailing epidemiologic transition. We examine the traditional concept and grades of disabling hearing impairment – within the context of the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health – as well as the modifications to grading that have recently been proposed by a panel of international experts. The opportunity offered by the emerging global and high-level interest in promoting disability-inclusive post-2015 development goals and disability-free child survival is also discussed. Since the costs of rehabilitative services are so high as to be prohibitive in low- and middle-income countries, the critical role of primary prevention is emphasized. If the goals outlined in the World Health Assembly’s 1995 resolution on the prevention of hearing impairment are to be reached by Member States, several effective country-level initiatives – including the development of public–private partnerships, strong leadership and measurable time-bound targets – will have to be implemented without further delay.