BACKGROUND: Hearing impairment is a leading cause of disease burden, yet population-based studies that measure hearing impairment are rare. We estimate regional and global hearing impairment prevalence from sparse data and calculate corresponding uncertainty intervals. METHODS: We accessed papers from a published literature review and obtained additional detailed data tabulations from investigators. We estimated the prevalence of hearing impairment by region, sex, age and hearing level using a Bayesian hierarchical model, a method that is effective for sparse data. As the primary objective of modelling was to produce regional and global prevalence estimates, including for those regions with scarce to no data, models were evaluated using cross-validation. RESULTS: We used data from 42 studies, carried out between 1973 and 2010 in 29 countries. Hearing impairment was positively related to age, male sex and middle- and low-income regions. We estimated that the global prevalence of hearing impairment (defined as an average hearing level of 35 decibels or more in the better ear) in 2008 was 1.4% (95% uncertainty interval 1.0-2.2%) for children aged 5-14 years, 9.8% (7.7-13.2%) for females >15 years of age and 12.2% (9.7-16.2%) for males >15 years of age. The model exhibited good external validity in the cross-validation analysis, with 87% of survey estimates falling within our final model's 95% uncertainty intervals. CONCLUSION: Our results suggest that the prevalence of child and adult hearing impairment is substantially higher in middle- and low-income countries than in high-income countries, demonstrating the global need for attention to hearing impairment.
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