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Stephan B. Tanda

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World Sight Day: A See Change

Posted: 10/12/2011 4:16 pm

Your capacity to see this evening's sunset, appreciate a smile on the face of your children, partner or friends, even read this blog is something that, like me, I am sure you often take for granted. Today there are 286 million people on our planet that don't enjoy this ability, 19 million of them children, all of whom suffer from a debilitating form of visual impairment. Sadly, and unacceptably, 80 percent of these cases are due to causes which could have been prevented, treated or cured. Not surprisingly, 90 percent of these people live in the developing world. As such, this is not an issue you hear talked about much in the general media or by public policy types. Therefore, you are probably unaware that October 13 is World Sight Day.

There are many international days that pass with little recognition from the general public; little conversation about them in the blogging world and no coverage or awareness by the media. I can't let this day pass without trying to change that. Every 5 seconds someone in the world goes needlessly blind. For hundreds of thousands of children per year, a life completely in the dark is a daily reality.

Thanks to the work of such pioneers as Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan, those that live in rich countries have access to services that can teach the blind to live relatively normal and productive lives despite their disability. Those in the developing world, however, are not so lucky.

Given the tremendous personal, economic and societal loss that occurs as a consequence of preventable blindness and the mitigating actions that can be taken at a relatively low cost, it is unacceptable that more is not being done. I ask your help in changing that and work toward raising awareness about the issue, starting today.

Avoidable human costs

While there are many causes of blindness, one of the most common is from Vitamin A deficiency, which leaves 350,000 children blind annually and is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness. Globally 23 percent of children suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. In addition to the risk of impaired vision and blindness, Vitamin A deficiency also leaves children and adults less able to fight infectious diseases.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 670,000 children under the age of five die annually due to Vitamin A and zinc deficiencies. Interventions, such as food fortification and supplementation, cost only pennies a week. Everyone has the 'Right to Sight' and these children should not be denied that right simply because they are poor and do not have access to proper nutrition and health care.

The issue is not simply humanitarian, it is economic as well. Addressing the issue is relatively easy and was named the most cost effective intervention designed to address the world's most pressing issues according to the Copenhagen Consensus in 2008. A mere $60 million investment can reap an enormous $1 billion in increased productivity and lower healthcare costs. For countries, communities and families that are struggling to emerge from the cycle of poverty; this is a great start on the road to a better life.

Sight and life

Those that have been working to tackle Vitamin A deficiency were encouraged when the U.N. committed itself to eliminating Vitamin A deficiency by 2010 during a United Nations special session on children held in 2002. While progress has been made, and many organizations and individuals should be recognized for their great efforts, this goal has yet to be reached and still 800,000 women and children will die from Vitamin A deficiency related causes this year.

While there is much work to be done, there is a cadre of dedicated NGOs that have committed themselves to this struggle such as: Helen Keller International, Vitamin Angels and Sight and Life as well as many governments and UN agencies such as the WHO, UNICEF and the World Food Programme (all organizations I am proud to say our company is working with and has supported).

A new approach

This year two of these organizations, Vitamin Angels and Sight and Life, signed an agreement to develop an innovative new model to fight Vitamin A deficiency. They created a program that is targeted towards India, which accounts for over a third of all cases of severe Vitamin A deficiency in the world. The goal is to develop and foster local ownership and create a local, sustainable supply and distribution system for Vitamin A.

The organizations will work with local NGOs to provide much needed services to people who live in areas that are hard to reach by regular government health services. To ensure success they will also rely on the support of the Indian government, the great philanthropic heritage of India, and the robust and local pharmaceutical industry, among other private sector partners.

Change you can see

The world is faced with many problems and issues. Clearly priorities have to be made. It is often difficult to appreciate the problems of those thousands of miles away when you can see so clearly the problems that need to be addressed right in your own neighborhood.

Yet we live an ever more connected world. Our success is linked to the success of others, even those that live on the other side of the world. Through combating Vitamin A and zinc deficiencies we can make a real difference not only to the lives of those who suffer from the consequences of these deficiencies, but also to the lives of their family members and their communities and eventually all of us.

So I encourage you to find out more about vitamin deficiencies, learn what you can do to help and please encourage your representatives to support international efforts to solve a problem that has devastating consequences, yet is easy to address. Let's have this year's World Sight Day be the first step to realizing a world where not a single child goes blind due to easily preventable Vitamin A deficiency. That would be a true 'See Change'.

 
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