Founded in 1915 by Helen Keller and George Kessler, Helen Keller International (HKI) is among the oldest international nonprofit organizations devoted to preventing blindness and reducing malnutrition. Headquartered in New York City, HKI works in 22 countries in the Africa and Asia-Pacific regions, as well as the United States.
Of the estimated 285 million people who are blind or visually impaired, 80 percent of them don’t have to be, according to the nonprofit. Nearly two billion people suffer from malnutrition caused by a lack of basic nutrients in their food, which can stunt physical and mental health, and causes blindness.
Since 1972, HKI’s distribution of vitamin A capsules to children and lactating mothers around the world has decreased blindness and even child mortality. Each year, an estimated 500,000 children go blind as a result of vitamin A deficiency. The deficiency also compromises the immune system, and can increase the risk of illness and death from diseases such as malaria, diarrhea and measles. As such, half of those children will die within twelve months of going blind. In 2012 alone, HKI reached 50 million children in Africa and Asia by providing them twice-yearly sight and lifesaving treatments of vitamin A, for just $1 per child per year.
In addition to vitamin A and mineral supplementation, Helen Keller International works to prevent blindness in several other ways. Helen Keller International’s evolving and continued intervention and prevention methods also include fighting Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) — debilitating conditions linked to poverty that may cause blindness, chronic pain, severe disability, disfigurement, and malnutrition. One in six people around the world — including half a billion children — are infected by NTDs, which include the blinding diseases of trachoma and onchocerciasis (“river blindness”).
HKI has been integral in developing a system to efficiently and effectively deliver preventative treatment for onchocerciasis, providing access to treatment for more than 80 million people in Africa each year. In addition, HKI trains medical staff in developing countries to perform corrective surgeries on individuals suffering from trachoma. Over time, trachoma leads to blindness and can have other devastating consequences, including the deaths of children whose parents have lost their vision and therefore can no longer farm or care for their offspring.
In the United States, Helen Keller International combats vision impairment by providing impoverished and at-risk school children free vision screenings and prescription eyeglasses, in many cases mitigating poor academic performances. The program is also employed in Indonesia and Vietnam.
Recognizing the link between malnutrition and blindness, HKI also works to reduce malnutrition, including the fortification of staple foods with essential nutrients, homestead food production, dietary diversification, promotion of optimal breastfeeding, community-based management of acute malnutrition and vitamin A supplementation. Through HKI’s Homestead Food Production Program, which teaches gardening and nutritional self-sufficiency to women in Africa and Asia, more than 1 million households have benefited from a healthier, more diversified diet, as well as earned income from the sales of surplus produce.
In addition, HKI’s partnership with the private sector to fortify cooking oil and wheat flour with essential vitamins and minerals is reaching 94 million people in West Africa. HKI has achieved significant impact through these efforts. In Bangladesh, for example, HKI’s homestead food production program led to a decrease in anemia rates from 64 percent to 45 percent; and, in West Africa, it is estimated that fortified cooking oil prevents 14,300 deaths per year.
The World Health Organization estimates that vitamin A supplementation reduces deaths in children ages 6 to 59 months by nearly 25 percent. Helen Keller International’s development of cost-effective, large-scale, sustainable programs — both in the United States and internationally — has made HKI an innovator in the field of eye health and nutrition for nearly a century. Its worldwide expansion, benefiting the most vulnerable populations, is a testament to HKI’s real and measurable impact, said Henry R. Kravis ’67, co-founder of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. L.P., and founder of the Kravis Prize.
“There is much to be learned from Helen Keller International’s transformative and encouragingly successful work in saving the sight and lives of millions of people,” Mr. Kravis said. “Their research in nutritional blindness is just one aspect of their far-reaching impact. It was through their findings more than four decades ago that society discovered how something as simple as a vitamin A capsule could mean the difference between sight or blindness — between life and death.”
Marie-Josée Kravis, chair of the Kravis Prize Selection Committee, said HKI’s leadership in this area has been pivotal. “That this nonprofit was started by such irrepressible, extraordinary human beings is only mirrored by its dedication to the exceptional, tangible work continued by its torch bearers, despite the challenging realities of being a global, life-saving entity. They have put remarkable, sustainable systems in place to change lives all over the world, including the lives of young people here in the United States.”
In 1972, HKI’s pioneering research linked vitamin A deficiency to blindness and child mortality (a correlation later verified in 1976). Workers began distributing vitamin A capsules that year in Asia and Central America. By 1980, distribution was expanded to millions of children and lactating mothers worldwide, with rates of blindness noticeably declining.
As a core part of its approach, HKI develops simple, low-cost, proven solutions, and then scales them. HKI first develops and tests new models that prevent blindness and malnutrition. Once it has a successful model, it works closely with local and national governments and organizations to integrate the intervention into the healthcare infrastructure and take it to scale. HKI also layers services together for maximum efficiency. For example, HKI uses the strategies, models, and community distribution networks it developed to prevent blindness and provide vitamin A as a base on which it layers new interventions to address other forms of malnutrition. HKI also uses a multi-faceted approach, addressing blindness and malnutrition through multiple, interrelated interventions. For example, to prevent malnutrition, HKI promotes the production and consumption of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which are rich in vitamin A, along with other strategies.
By effectively focusing on these two critical, interrelated areas — preventing blindness and malnutrition — HKI has remained well-focused, developed incredible expertise, sustained well-coordinated programs, and become a global leader in its field.
Together, HKI’s cost-effective programs are preventing malnutrition and infections and diseases, restoring vision, improving learning opportunities, and reducing mortality rates among millions of the world’s most vulnerable people.