Malawi Hearing Project

The Malawi Hearing Project was established in 2023 to provide affordable hearing equipment, create training and teaching resources, and deliver support and treatment to enable more deaf children in Malawi to access education and continue learning.

Why is this project needed?

In Malawi, children have a high incidence of childhood deafness from chronic ear infections that can cause a hole in the ear drum. With only a handful of audiologists and ENT surgeons in the country, children sometimes wait years for an operation, severely disrupting their ability to learn.

Traditional hearing aids cost between US$100-300 in Malawi, which is too expensive for most of the population. Even if hearing aids are donated, replacing the batteries and traveling to clinics is completely unaffordable. At a school for the deaf in Blantyre, Malawi’s second largest city, only 10% of children have access to hearing aids.

How the project started

Glue ear is a common childhood condition where the middle part of the ear canal fills up with fluid and causes temporary deafness. If it lasts a long time, it can affect a child’s speech development and progress at school.

During the COVID pandemic when families couldn’t access normal ENT services, a simple, over the ear headset was developed by Cambridge-based paediatrician Dr Tamsin Holland Brown that allowed children to keep learning without interruption. It works by turning sound into vibrations, which travel through the bone just in front of the ear and transmits sound to the inner ear within the skull. The hearing device connects via Bluetooth to a microphone which is worn by the person speaking, for example a teacher.

The founder of Hear Glue Ear, Tamsin soon recognised that the headset could also allow deaf and hard of hearing Malawian children to continue accessing education. It is simple, cheap, and rechargeable, making it suitable for children in rural, low-income settings. It can also be worn by those with discharging ears, which conventional hearing aids aren’t suitable for and is particularly important in a country with few ENT surgeons.

What’s happening in the project

A project team including Dr Tamsin Holland Brown and ENT surgeon Isobel Fitzgerald O’Connor visited Malawi in 2023 to conduct qualitative and practical research to understand the challenges and assess potential solutions. They conducted interviews with an audiologist at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre and teachers at Maryview School for the Deaf, as well as testing the practicalities and limitations of solar chargers. They very quickly found the headsets to be transformative for the children who used them, as 2023 Global Health Fellow Catherine de Cates reports in this blog.

“Another girl with longstanding ear disease and infections was given the headset at age 13, and now aged 16, had been using this headset with the microphone to support her hearing at school….Having been unable to pass end-of-year exams previously, she had passed school exams every year since using the device. She now has ambitions to study medicine. She also used the device for socialising with friends and in the family home.”

Observations from 2023 Global Health Fellow Catherine de Cates during a visit to Blantyre, Malawi.
Since 2023’s visits, the team has continued to work with Malawian colleagues to pilot bone conducting headsets in the audiology department at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Blantyre, create training materials for set up and use of the headsets in both English and Chichewa (the local language), and source affordable, solar powered chargers.

Together with local faculty they will run an ear camp in rural Blantyre to allow families for whom it is very difficult to reach the hospital to access care. The involvement of local audiologists is essential to the success of these camps, as they can notify almost all village leaders in the area. The team will see as many children as possible for ear and hearing checks and as much advice, management or treatment as they can offer.

The team aim to identify as many children with hearing loss as possible and give them the resources to communicate and learn more effectively, improving their employment opportunities later on.

Malawi school children

The gift of hearing

Visit ITV News to watch the joyful moment that 14-year-old Malawian boy Samuel hears again for the first time in seven years – thanks to the bone-conducting headset developed by Cambridge-based paediatrician Tamsin Holland Brown.

Want to support the Malawi Hearing Project? You can donate to Tamsin and Isobel’s Just Giving page.