Helen Keller International wins AGFUND award for sustainable control of onchocerciasis

HKI accepts first prize for preventing blindness

October 13, 2009, Istanbul, Turkey – Helen Keller International (HKI), represented by Shawn Baker, Vice President and Regional Director for Africa, attended the Arab Gulf Program for United Nations Development Organizations’ (AGFUND) ceremony to honor the recipients of its annual International Prize for Pioneering Development Projects. This year’s theme was the prevention of visual impairment, and HKI was awarded first prize of $150,000 for its “Sustainable Control of Onchocerciasis” program in Africa. The ceremony was attended by State Minister Faruk Çilik, representing His Excellency the President of the Republic of Turkey; His Royal Highness, Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz, President of AGFUND; Professor and Nobel Laureate Mohamed Yunus, representing the Prize Committee; and several members of the Turkish government as well as other noted leaders of civil society.

Prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz spoke about his organization’s motivation for the award, noting that, “individuals who lead people back to light and give them a fresh breath of hope are entitled to see their efforts appreciated and their initiatives disseminated so that all communities shall benefit from them, because developmental thought is in fact a public property.”

HKI’s onchocerciasis control programs have given hope to countless communities in the countries where it works. Across Africa, 37 million people are infected with the disease, and an additional 89 million people are at risk of infection. Also known as river blindness, it leaves its victims with debilitating conditions such as skin deformation, severe itching and blindness.

HKI’s work with onchocerciasis began in Cameroon in 1992. In 1995, a major milestone was reached when HKI and other non-governmental organizations successfully lobbied the World Bank to launch the African Program for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC). Currently active in 19 countries, APOC seeks to eliminate onchocerciasis as a public health threat and barrier to socio-economic development in Africa through sustainable mass administration of the drug Mectizan®, which is donated by Merck & Co, Inc.

Working with APOC and other partners, HKI’s “Sustainable Control of Onchocerciasis” program offered surveillance, education and treatment projects in ten endemic countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania. Success has been realized through a delivery system called community-directed treatment with ivermectin (the generic name for Mectizan®) or CDTI. This approach places the power to control onchocerciasis in the hands of community members themselves by building partnerships with health care systems that can be sustained over time with minimal resources.

In accepting the award, Baker noted that “it honors the tens of thousands of community drug distributors who volunteer their time across Africa to assist their own villages, and celebrates the hundreds of thousands of people who have been saved from blindness and debilitating skin disease.”


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. HKI programs combat refractive error, cataract, trachoma, onchocerciasis (river blindness) and malnutrition. HKI receives support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and other national and local governments as well as from private and corporate foundations and individuals.

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