NEW YORK CITY — It is estimated that there are nearly 285 million people worldwide living with blindness or visual impairment, and roughly 80 percent of this population live in developing countries. Poverty and blindness are intrinsically connected for many reasons, and the two conditions rapidly exacerbate each other. People living in poverty are more likely to become blind due to lack of access to health services and proper sanitation, and people living with blindness have far fewer employment opportunities, worsening the conditions of poverty.
Blindness affects not only a person’s productivity and potential, but also the productivity and potential of their family members. Children of blind parents must often drop out of school to care for a parent. Income levels drop and quality of life and conditions of poverty worsen. Helen Keller International (HKI) was founded to break the vicious cycle of poverty and blindness, with a mission to save the sight and lives of the world’s most disadvantaged.
Using a variety of interventions to alleviate preventable blindness, this New York City-based organization makes a global impact, working with 22 countries around the world. The fight against trachoma—a painful bacterial eye disease caused by poor sanitation and lack of clean water in poor communities—is a top priority for Helen Keller International because of the shocking number of people that it affects. This disease—extremely common in impoverished communities—if left untreated, leads to blindness.
HKI works with children in schools to practice frequent face washing and other preventive habits, and educates adolescents and adults on the signs and symptoms of trachoma. Providing simple information regarding personal hygiene and health can make a world of difference for the 22 million people suffering from trachoma—2.2 million of who are visually impaired.
Beyond providing basic health information to people in communities that lack access to clean water—and who are therefore at the greatest risk of developing trachoma—HKI works with other organizations, surgeons, nurses, and government health programs to tackle the leading cause of blindness. HKI works to train nurses and surgeons specifically on eye-related infection, disease, and treatment. They also supply necessary antibiotic and surgical supplies, and assist with patient follow-up. The end goal: to carry out the simple surgical procedure that corrects trichiasis, the blinding stage of trachoma. This life-saving surgery has an 80 percent success rate, and costs only $40-$60 per person. 22 million people need this simple, low-cost surgery today.
Funding for treatment and clean water initiatives are at the crux of HKI’s work, but the staggering number of impoverished people living with blindness is caused by much more than lack of sanitation and access to health care systems. Malnutrition—specifically, vitamin A deficiency—is also a leading cause of blindness. In 2012, the UN reported that there were 870 million people suffering from chronic undernourishment. In 1970, HKI collaborated in the groundbreaking research that first linked vitamin A deficiency with both blindness and child mortality.
HKI works to reduce malnutrition and blindness by providing low-cost vitamin and mineral supplements to the world’s most vulnerable populations. HKI’s Vitamin A Supplementation Program reached 50 million children in Africa and Asia last year alone with lifesaving vitamin A treatments, at a cost of just $1 per child, per year. $1 per year can save a child from blindness and death.
Health care training programs, clean water initiatives, vitamin A supplements, surgical supplies and antibiotics are all components of HKI’s work. But the greatest factor in the organization’s success lies in funding. Programs like HKI need the funding to continue to raise awareness and bring programs and supplies into developing countries to help combat the diseases, disabilities and death rates that plague their populations.
The world that HKI envisions—a world without suffering from preventable and treatable blindness and suffering from malnutrition—is a real possibility. A simple $40 surgical procedure, a $1 vitamin A supplement, or the passing on of health and hygiene-related information can save literally millions of lives from blindness and suffering, giving this population a leg up instead of watching them take a step back.
Sources: Unite for Sight, UN, HKI