Ensuring children’s access to hearing care

Written by Heinz K. Becker on 21 November 2018 in Opinion
Opinion

Hearing loss can often be a hidden, sometimes neglected, disability, explains Heinz K. Becker.

Photo credit: Pixababy


Around 466 million people worldwide live with disabling hearing loss, of these, 34 million are children. Hearing loss can be a hidden, sometimes neglected, disability.

As a chronic and often life-long condition, it does have a profound impact on interpersonal communication, the development of speech, educational achievements, and cognitive skills across all ages, from the youngest to the oldest.

In the latter case, people with mild hearing loss have nearly twice the chance of developing dementia as people without any hearing loss, due to the lack of social interaction and engagement in society.


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Hearing impairment is not only a health burden for European citizens, it also puts pressure on Europe’s health and social care systems if left untreated. I am deeply concerned that, despite all the innovative technologies and treatments available in Europe, hearing loss often remains unaddressed.

In Europe, 10 per cent of the total population (52 million people) self-reports to experiencing hearing loss, but only 50 per cent of those are referred to hearing care professionals.

Before summer began, my colleague Lambert Van Nistelrooij and I sent a written question to the European Commission on this issue in order to raise awareness about the socioeconomic impact of hearing loss and to bring attention to the uptake of innovative solutions.

Specifically, in the framework of the Pillar of Social Rights, we called on the Commission to foster an exchange of best practices on high-quality hearing care, including early screening programmes for children and adults to diagnose and address hearing loss.

"My colleague Lambert Van Nistelrooij and I sent a written question to the European Commission on this issue in order to raise awareness about the socioeconomic impact of hearing loss and to bring attention to the uptake of innovative solutions"

I believe we to underestimate the burden of unaddressed or hidden disabilities, which does not only lead to very high health sector costs (WHO estimates that untreated hearing loss poses an annual global cost of 750 billion international dollars) but also detrimental social conditions.

For example, untreated hearing loss can lead to a lack of engagement in society. Social interactions and effective communication are vital for healthy peer relationships. The resulting exclusion from communication has a significant impact on everyday life, causing learning problems as well as feelings of loneliness, isolation, and frustration.

For children, the picture is more distressing. Language is learned through exposure to sounds. To develop spoken language, children must be able to hear speech clearly. Listening skills do not only impact language development but also influence a child’s ability to learn to read and write. Consequently, access to educational and career opportunities becomes more limited.

November 20 marks International Children’s Rights day, which is dedicated to children’s living condition and how we can build a world where all children can fulfil their potential. Up to five in every 1000 children worldwide are born with or develop sensorineural deafness in their early childhood.

As children grow, they will face a range of challenges during different stages of their lives, from being in the security of your home to being on their own at school and experiencing social life.

"Evidence shows that children who have mild to moderate hearing loss but do not receive intervention cope with poor academic performance, accompanied by inattention and sometimes bad behaviour, which are often misidentified as attention deficit disorders"

Evidence shows that children who have mild to moderate hearing loss but do not receive intervention cope with poor academic performance, accompanied by inattention and sometimes bad behaviour, which are often misidentified as attention deficit disorders.

In addition to struggles in school, children can also experience trouble socially. Fearing embarrassment or experiencing frustration, kids could feel excluded from social interactions or unwilling to participate in group activities.

Detecting and intervening early in children’s lives helps to minimise the involved consequences. This can be achieved through screening programmes. As stated by WHO, it is vital to ensure access to appropriate and affordable assistive technologies such as hearing aids and surgically implanted electronic cochlear implants, as well as communication services like speech therapy, sign language and captioning.

Children with severe hearing loss or deafness who receive cochlear implants outperform their non-implanted deaf peers and attend mainstream fulltime education.

It is time to raise awareness on hearing loss impact on everyday life and on the role of innovation and hearing care in better managing this condition. EU Member States can do more, starting from integrating strategies for hearing care into primary healthcare systems in order to foster identification and treatment as well as ensuring access to assistive technologies and communication services.

The Austrian EU Council Presidency is committed to fostering health and accessibility as well as ensuring a well-functioning Single Market beneficial for everyone, included people with disabilities.

In this scope, I hope the Presidency will guide the EU institutions in ensuring that access to professional hearing care is a right, including diagnosis, rehabilitation, service and maintenance. By doing so, we will empower people with hearing loss to overcome its stigma and improve inclusion and equal rights for all children in Europe.

About the author

Heinz K. Becker (EPP, AT) is a member of the European Parliament’s committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs  

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