Founded in 1915, Helen Keller International’s (HKI) mission is to save the sight and lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. HKI combats the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition by establishing programs based on evidence and research in vision, health, and nutrition. The organization is known for sustainability, reliability, efficiency, and the highest level of technical expertise in preventing blindness and reducing malnutrition. HKI is headquartered in New York City, and has programs in 21 countries in Africa and Asia as well as in the United States, addressing malnutrition (including vitamin A deficiency), cataract, trachoma, onchocerciasis (river blindness), and refractive error.
National Eye Health Education Program (NEHEP), CORE Group, Global Health Council, USAID Health Research Program, International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (VISION 2020), InterAction, International Coalition for Trachoma Control, Nongovernmental Development Organization, GET2020, African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control, International Zinc Nutrition Consultative Group, and Global Alliance to Eliminate Lymphatic Filiariasis.
Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University, Tufts University, Wageningen University
Cataract causes the clouding of the normally transparent lens of the eye and is the single largest cause of treatable blindness worldwide. It affects more than 18 million people, or 48 percent of all blind adults. While the cause of cataract is unknown, it can be effectively treated by surgery. HKI works to improve the accessibility, efficiency, and quality of cataract treatment and surgical care. HKI trains surgeons, nurses, and community health workers, as well as develop basic eye health education programs with government counterparts and local nongovernmental organizations. HKI also provides the equipment and technology necessary for program implementation.
Also known as river blindness, onchocerciasis is the second-leading infectious cause of blindness in the world. It is caused by a parasitic worm transmitted through the bite of the black fly. In Africa, 37 million people are infected with onchocerciasis, and 90 million worldwide are at risk of infection. An annual dose of the drug Mectizan® (ivermectin), generously donated by Merck & Co., Inc., prevents symptoms of onchocerciasis for one year. HKI encourages communities to take responsibility for their health by providing them with training, information, and education about preventing and treating the disease.
HKI and their partners developed a delivery system called Community-Directed Treatment with Ivermectin (CDTI) that places the power to control this disease in the hands of community members themselves. Partnerships are created between communities and healthcare systems so that intervention will continue after initial technical assistance and training are provided. Community-Directed Distributors are trained to administer and track the annual doses of the drug within their own communities. CDTI systems now cover more than 60 million people in Africa.
Trachoma is the leading infectious cause of preventable blindness in the world. Resulting from a bacterium, this painful infection of the eye leads to the buildup of scar tissue and can eventually cause blindness. Endemic in 57 countries, with 75 percent of the afflicted in Africa, trachoma has left more than 7.5 million people irreversibly blind and almost 50 million in need of treatment. In an effort to help control trachoma, HKI implements the WHO-endorsed SAFE strategy (surgery, antibiotics, face cleanliness, and environmental improvements) through community-based programs. Interventions include training surgeons and nurses; providing necessary antibiotic supplies and surgical materials; having school health programs teach children to practice frequent face washing; and supporting environmental improvements, like improving the water supply and latrine construction of schools.
ChildSight® “Bringing Education into FocusTM”
ChildSight®, HKI’s domestic program, serves children living in urban and rural poverty, addressing their refractive errors—commonly known as nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism. Every year in the United States, 2 million children live with uncorrected refractive errors. ChildSight® works to overcome the two biggest barriers to childhood vision care: prohibitive cost and limited access. ChildSight® offers free vision screenings and eyeglasses to children who need them. The connection between vision and academic improvement is dramatic and life changing. Since 1994, ChildSight® has screened more than 1.4 million students in the United States and has provided free eyeglasses to more than 186,000 of the nation’s most vulnerable children. This proven success led HKI to expand their services internationally.
Diabetic Retinopathy Treatment
Diabetic Retinopathy (DR) is a leading cause of preventable blindness worldwide and is a frequent cause of new cases of blindness among adults ages 20–74. Early diagnosis and treatment of DR is critical to stave off vision loss, as 75 percent of people with diabetes will develop some form of retinopathy within 15 years of their diagnosis. To improve access to, and long-term compliance with, DR treatment and care among the urban poor in Bangladesh and Indonesia, HKI and their partners initiated a program establishing a collaborative network that identifies and refers DR cases, provides high-quality treatment, and keeps patients in the healthcare system once identified.
Vitamin A Supplementation
The leading cause of childhood blindness is vitamin A deficiency. Every year, it is estimated that 670,000 children will die of vitamin A deficiency and that 350,000 children will go blind. Vitamin A supplementation is one of the most cost-effective methods of preventing blindness, costing just $1 per child per year. Biannual treatments of vitamin A can prevent blindness in children and save their lives; last year, HKI delivered more than 85 million vitamin A capsules to children. HKI is a leader in designing, implementing, and monitoring programs that ensure annual delivery of vitamin A to vulnerable populations worldwide, preventing blindness and reducing malnutrition. These programs save the sight and lives of thousands of people every year. In addition, HKI also promotes the consumption of foods rich in vitamin A, encourages food fortification with micronutrients, and teaches homestead food production.
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