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2009: Helen Keller International

The 2009 António Champalimaud Vision Award was awarded to Helen Keller International (HKI) for its outstanding achievements in preventing blindness in the developing world. In particular, its decades-long leadership in the global control of vitamin A deficiency - the leading cause of childhood blindness and a significant contributor to childhood mortality – has helped to save the sight and lives of millions of people around the world. 

Helen Keller International has programmes in 22 countries that combat malnutrition, cataract, trachoma, onchocerciasis and refractive error, and has been instrumental in creating programmes to control vitamin A deficiency. HKI has played a critical role in developing vitamin A supplementation (VAS) programmes for children and currently offers these programs in 13 countries in Africa and 5 countries in Asia. The goal is to strengthen country-driven plans to achieve and sustain high VAS coverage by reaching more than 80 percent of targeted children with vitamin A capsules. It is estimated that these programs help to save the sight and lives of millions of children every year. 

HKI addresses vitamin A deficiency through a multi-faceted approach using a variety of intervention tools that have a focus on promoting sustainability within communities. In Mozambique for example, HKI promotes the production and consumption of orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes, which are rich in vitamin A. HKI works directly with local communities and forges partnerships with key governmental, research and non-governmental partners to ensure long-term commitment. HKI provides training and supervision to agricultural extension workers, community groups and farmers, collaborates with growers, women’s groups and schools to distribute the plants, and develops communication strategies to encourage acceptance and consumption of these potatoes by growers and consumers. 

In addition to these programs, HKI offers a wide range of other highly efficient and effective programs to meet its mission to save the sight and lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. For example, the organization addresses trachoma - the leading infectious cause of preventable blindness – by implementing the World Health Organization’s SAFE (Surgery, Antibiotics, Facial cleanliness and Environmental improvement) strategy through providing antibiotic supplies and equipment, and through innovative school health and community-based programs such as training health workers to perform surgery. In Africa, HKI collaborates with governments, communities and other organizations to eradicate onchocerciasis (river blindness) a blinding parasitic disease, by setting up delivery systems so that adequate and proper medication reaches people in need. HKI also treats cataract by training surgeons, nurses and community health workers. 

Because blindness and the myriad health consequences of malnutrition have enormous personal, social, and economic repercussions that often condemn otherwise healthy individuals to lives of poverty and dependence, HKI’s programs not only promote health, but the far-reaching related outcomes of dignity, and social and economic independence.