Friday, December 16, 2005


Readers ask me if I have difficulty find material for my articles, and I always tell them that I doubt that I will ever run about of wonderful organizations to write about on this blog.

Case in point - yesterday I wrote and article about the Kilimanjaro Centre for Community Ophthalmology and in doing so, I had to do some quick research on one of their partners, Helen Keller International (HKI). Well, wouldn't you know it, HKI has programs in 16 different countries in Africa. Those countries are:

Burkina Faso
Côte d'Ivoire
Democratic Republic of Congo
Sierra Leone
South Africa
Tanzania and

For some reason, I had not even considered writing about Helen Keller International. Was it because I did not know about all that they do? Yup! That is exactly the reason. I knew that Helen Keller International was very active in the U.S. - so, what did I think the word "International" was there for? Decoration? My apologies to HKI for my ignorance on the matter, and now here goes.

Headquartered in New York City, Helen Keller International is among the oldest international nonprofit organizations devoted to fighting and treating preventable blindness and malnutrition. Founded in 1915, this organization now has programs in 26 countries around the world.

One of HKI's methods is to build local capacity through the establishment of sustainable programs, and providing s scientific and technical assistance and data to governments and international, regional, national and local organizations around the world in this effort.

Working with the medical community and governmental and non-governmental agencies, HKI works to save the sight and lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged by battling malnutrition, cataract, trachoma, river blindness (onchocerciasis) and refractive error.

The ultimate goal of all HKI programs is to reduce suffering of those without access to needed health or vision care and ultimately, to help lift people from poverty.

All of this began in 1915 when a wealthy New York wine merchant by the name of George Kessler almost went down with the Lusitania when it was sank by a German U-boat in the early stages of WWI. Kessler survived the tragedy, but was hospitalized in England briefly where he met Sir Arthur Pearson, a blind English newspaper publisher. Sir Arthur told Kessler about a center he had founded to help soldiers blinded in the war. Later that year, Kessler, along with his wife, Cora organized the British, French, Belgian Permanent Blind Relief War Fund in Paris.

The Kesslers enlisted the aid of the then 35 years old (but nevertheless famous) Helen Keller.

Since then - according to its web site, "HKI has grown into an organization that helps millions of people all over the world."

HKI has an Africa Regional Office that provides guidance for all the activities in the 16 country offices. The Regional Office also provides oversight for multi-country initiatives and is instrumental in the implementation of those initiatives.

One such example of a multi-country initiative the program designed to ensure sustained vitamin A supplementation (known as - "VAS") in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, DR Congo, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.

In February of 2005, HKI and UNICEF signed a global Memorandum of Understanding to serve as a framework for joint efforts to combat malnutrition, including elimination of vitamin A deficiency and other micronutrient deficiencies, and to combat blindness.

It is the hope of HKI that this program, which is funded in part by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Micronutrient Initiative (MI) will:

Support country-driven plans that are well-coordinated with all partners to achieve high coverage of semi-annual, preventative high-dose VAS to children 6-59 months of age as NIDs phase out.

Use semi-annual VAS as a platform for an integrated package of low-cost, high-impact, setting-specific child survival interventions.

Build developing country capacity, in particular leading to budgetary allocations, that will allow vitamin A programs to be mainstreamed into country/government policies and programs.

Improve monitoring systems for VAS and strengthen health systems

As I stated earlier, HKI has programs in 16 African nations, and I cannot discuss them all in this article, nor can I discuss any of them with any depth. I can only give you the briefest of outlines here, and then you can decide where you want to start first in learning the rest of the story.

HKI began working with partners in Burkina Faso in 1996 to address issues of nutrition and eye care. In the nine years since then they have expanded their activities to include:
Technical assistance to the Ministry of Health Nutrition Directorate regarding nutrition issues. This initiate is carried out with support from the Micronutrient Initiative and is working to develop alternative strategies to ensure adequate vitamin A supplementation of all children aged 6-59 months. There are other areas of technical assistance as well.
Food fortification, which is another strategy employed to control vitamin A deficiency, as per the National Plan of Action for Nutrition.
Orange-fleshed sweet potato programs. This is a program carried out with support from the McKnight Fund to improve the vitamin A intakes of women and children through the production and consumption of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.
Other programs include:
School health
Onchocerciasis control
Lymphatic Filariasis control
Trachoma control
Integrated school gardening

And you can vist the Burkina Faso web site to read more about them.

In Zimbabwe HKI is conducting activities for vitamin A supplementation. A recent UNICEF surveillance indicated that coverage of VAS in 10 districts is only 10%, and UNICEF and the Ministry of Health (MoH) have developed a new strategy to implement district-level child health days. HKI is working with UNICEF and the MoH to plan and support these child health days.


HKI has been in Morocco since 1986 and is now in partnership with the government after signing a Memorandum of Understanding in June of 2000. HKI says that it conducts "integrated health and socioeconomic development projects that address:

Trachoma Control
Vision Care

The organization says that it "uses a participatory approach focusing on trachoma, blindness, and malnutrition through education, development, conflict resolution, poverty reduction, and technical reinforcement of government staff."

This is just the briefest of statements about the work of Helen Keller International in Africa. I hope that you take the time to read more about them and spread the word. The gift of sight is precious and the work that Helen Keller International does is invaluable.

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