There is an “invisible epidemic” afflicting the world, but it’s not contagious or infectious, and there are often no outward symptoms.
It is hearing loss – a condition that can still have profound consequences, experts say.
“Hearing loss is considered an invisible epidemic because people don’t see it or know that someone suffers from it,” says De Wet Swanepoel, professor of audiology at South Africa’s Pretoria University.
“Not even parents may realise their child has hearing loss before critical developmental periods have lapsed.”
Delays in diagnosis can affect the educational attainment and life chances of children in particular. One in 10 children globally have “educationally significant” hearing loss, says Prof Swanepoel.
The problem is that there aren’t enough trained audiologists able to go out to sometimes very remote, rural areas to diagnose the condition.
This is where the smartphone is making a big difference.
An app called HearScreen, the result of a research project led by Prof Swanepoel and Dr Herman Myburgh at Pretoria University, can detect hearing loss with just a low-cost smartphone and a pair of headphones.
Complete with real-time background noise monitoring, the app turns a mobile phone’s microphone into a calibrated sound level meter.
You put the headphones on, and the tester, sitting behind you, uses the phone to send audio beeps at different volumes to your ears. If you can hear them you raise your hand and the tester records your responses.
It’s all very simple – the app can screen two ears in less than 60 seconds and its makers claim that the system is six times cheaper than traditional testing equipment.
The data captured is stored to the cloud where specialists can access and analyse it remotely.
The “clinically validated” app can be operated effectively by non-specialists, the company says, making it ideally suited for use in remote locations.