During the past three to four decades, the incidence of acquired sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) in children living in more developed countries has fallen, as a result of improved neonatal care and the widespread implementation of immunisation programmes. The overall decrease has been accompanied by a relative increase in the proportion of inherited forms of SNHL. The contribution made by one gene in particular, GJB2, to the genetic load of SNHL has strongly affected the assessment and care of children with hearing loss. These changes in the incidence of SNHL have not been seen in children living in less developed countries, where the prevalence of consanguinity is high in many areas, and both genetic and acquired forms of SNHL are more common, particularly among children who live in poverty. Focused genetic counselling and health education might lead to a decrease in the prevalence of inherited SNHL in these countries. Establishment of vaccination programmes for several vaccine-preventable infectious diseases would reduce rates of acquired SNHL. Although the primary purpose of such programmes is the prevention of serious and in many cases fatal infections, a secondary benefit would be a reduction in disease-related complications such as SNHL that cause permanent disability in survivors.