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Rediff.com  » News » Eyecare pioneer Aravind wins $1 million Gates Foundation award

Eyecare pioneer Aravind wins $1 million Gates Foundation award

May 29, 2008 11:14 IST
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has named non-profit Aravind Eye Care System in Tamil Nadu as the recipient of its 2008 $1 million Gates Award for Global Health, in recognition of its groundbreaking work to prevent debilitating blindness and provide affordable, world-class eye care to the poor. The world's largest annual prize for international health honors extraordinary efforts to improve health in developing countries.

Founded by Dr G Venkataswamy in 1976, Aravind has saved millions of people in India from debilitating blindness. Cataracts account for more than half the cases of blindness in India. In the past 12 months, Aravind provided out-patient care to approximately 2.4 million patients and performed more than 280,000 surgeries. Thanks in part to these efforts, the number of legally blind people in India fell from 8.9 million in 1990 to 6.7 million in 2002, a decline of 25 percent.

Bill Gates's father, William H Gates Sr, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will present the award on Thursday, May 29, at the Global Health Council's 35th Annual International Conference in Washington, DC.

'Being blind in a rural village in the developing world leaves a person in darkness and dependence, often unable to earn a living or assist in the duties of their household,' Bill Gates said in a statement. 'Aravind has given sight to millions of men, women, and children, enabling them to participate fully in the lives of their families and communities.'

Since 1976, Aravind has grown from a rented house with 11 beds to a thriving network of hospitals and satellite clinics that provide eye exams and surgeries, trains health care professionals, conduct research, and manufacture eye care products. Outreach teams from Aravind hospitals coordinate with local leaders and service groups across India to organise 'eye camps' that provide free exams. Since 2004, Aravind has used high-speed broadband access to link these camps directly to on-call doctors in central hospitals. The doctors can diagnose and refer patients in real time, ensuring that only those who require surgery make the journey to the hospital.

'All people have a right to sight,' said Dr Perumalsamy Namperumalsamy, chairman of Aravind. 'We hope that this award will encourage others to develop creative, sustainable solutions to blindness and other global health challenges.'

Aravind's innovative business model enables it to provide the same high-quality care to every patient, regardless of their ability to pay, without charitable contributions. The organisation enlists local businesses to sponsor eye care hospitals, and subsidises care for the poor through fees from paying patients and global sales of eye care products.

'Ensuring that the world's poorest people can access essential health care is an ongoing challenge in global health,' said Dr Nils Daulaire, president of the Global Health Council. 'Aravind has demonstrated that there are ways to do good and commit to providing the highest quality services while utilizing the latest technologies and scientific advances.'

The Gates Award for Global Health was established by Bill and Melinda Gates in 2000 to recognise exemplary work in international health. The Global Health Council coordinates the selection process for and presentation of the Gates Award at its Annual International Conference.

Previous recipients include Thailand's Population and Community Development Association for its innovative work in family planning and HIV prevention (2007); the Carter Center for its pioneering work to fight neglected diseases (2006); the African Medical and Research Foundation for improving health in some of Africa's poorest communities (2005); the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, for community-based health programs (2004); the Brazilian National AIDS Program, for its integrated approach to HIV prevention and treatment (2003); and the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International, for contributions to polio eradication (2002).

Suman Guha Mozumder in New York