There are approximately 30 million adults and 6.8 million children who are hearing impaired in Sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is a critical lack of well-trained hearing professionals and health workers available to deliver hearing diagnoses and treatments. Sadly, most hearing loss is preventable. In Kenya, over 600.000 are hearing impaired. The Ministry of Health claims that many adults lose their hearing because of ototoxic drugs, which are damaging to the ear, resulting in hearing problems, balance issues, and tinnitus (ringing in the ear). Other causes are very noisy workplaces, loud concerts, earphones, loud music in public transit, injuries, and illnesses.
Among children, hearing loss may be caused by medications the mother took during pregnancy, as well as severe jaundice after birth, birth injuries, or other complications. Contagious illnesses such as measles, otitis media (middle ear infection), meningitis, and bacterial infections also may cause hearing loss. Some cases are genetic. Health Cabinet Secretary Dr. Cleopa Mailu has said that ENT (ear, nose, and throat) illnesses have increased and have spurred the government to come up with plans to deal with them. She said ear care has been “neglected for a long time.” Hearing loss prevention is difficult when the country has only seven audiologists, and one otologist (ear specialist). ENT nurses and technologists are not being trained. Mailu said the poor progress is due to a lack of a national program in the country.
The good news is there has been an effort to launch guidelines and protocols to establish the management of hearing loss in Kenya. However, much needs to be done to overcome many obstacles. There is a continuing shortage of drugs for all types of illnesses, and that includes ear drops. The Ministry of Health plans to add more to the “List of Essential Medicines,” which until recently only contained medicines for contagious diseases. Poverty is a main barrier to getting help. Parents cannot take their children to schools where they can get help and learn sign language. Some parents don’t accept that their children are hearing impaired and take them to regular schools, where they fall behind and many drop out. Unfortunately, teachers are not trained to identify and help these children with their needs. They also may develop poor self-esteem and be unable to get along with their peers. Many parents are even unaware of hearing impairment and do not know about screening. Poverty prevents many from traveling to cities that may have resources.
Hearing aids are few and far between in Africa. Worldwide, 56 million people use hearing aids, but production meets only ten percent of the need, and only three percent reach developing nations. They are too expensive for most. In Kenya, they are not covered by insurance. At present, there is no supply at public health clinics, according to Dr. Mailu. In order to get help at present, a person with hearing impairment can go, if able, to register with the National Council for Persons With Disability (NCPWD). They will provide a list of hospitals that are approved for assessment tests. An audiogram and an extensive interview will be administered by a panel of physicians, and results will go to the Ministry of Health, then back to the NCPWD. An applicant will then be sent to a non-profit organization for a possible fitting of a hearing aid.