New York: An innovative eye surgery network in Tamil Nadu that has prevented blindness among millions and provided affordable quality eye care for the poor has won the $1 million Gates Award for Global Health, the world’s highest prize for healthcare. The Aravind Eye Care system, a non-profit network, is the eighth recipient of the award set up by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 to honour extraordinary efforts to improve health in developing countries.
Founded in Madurai by eye surgeon Dr.G. Venkataswamy Ravilla in 1976 from a rented house with 11 beds, Aravind has today grown into a network of hospitals and clinics that has saved millions from debilitating blindness in India where cataract accounts for more than half the cases of blindness.
Named after Sri Aurobindo, the revolutionary freedom fighter-turned-mystic, Aravind last year provided outpatient care to nearly 2.4 million people and performed more than 280,000 surgeries. Its efforts have contributed to reducing the number of blind people in India by 25 percent, from 8.9 million in 1990 to 6.7 million in 2002.
“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,” William H. Gates Sr, the co-chair of the foundation, said in a statement announcing the award.
“Aravind has given sight to millions of men, women and children, enabling them to participate in the lives of their families and communities,” he added.
Outreach teams from Aravind hospitals coordinate with local leaders and service groups across India to organise eye camps that provide free examination and surgery by keeping costs extremely low. Care for the poor is subsidised through fees for paying customers and the sale of eye-care products.
“All people have a right to sight,” said Perumalsamy Namperumalsamy, chairman of Aravind. “We hope this award will encourage others to develop creative, sustainable solutions to blindness and other global health challenges.”
Aravind also trains health professionals to work throughout the country and uses high-speed broadband links from central hospitals to eye camps in poor areas. Doctors can diagnose and refer patients in real time, ensuring that only those who require surgery make the journey to the hospital.
“Ensuring that the world’s poorest people can access essential healthcare is an ongoing challenge in global health,” said Nils Daulaire, president of the Global Health Council, which coordinates the selection process of the Gates Award.
“Aravind has demonstrated that there are ways to do good and commit to providing the highest quality services while utilising the latest technologies and scientific advances,” he added.
Thulasiraj Ravilla, the executive director of the Lions Aravind institute of community ophthalmology in Madurai, said they plan to use the award money to expand services to provide spectacles to everyone in India.
Read more about Aravind eye hospital: http://www.kammavelugu.org/Dec2007/eyehospital.htm