More than 39 million people around the world suffer from blindness – 80 per cent of which is preventable or treatable – statistics that Vancouver-based international development organization Seva Canada has been working to counter for the last 33 years.

Now the organization is receiving international acclaim for their work: on Sept. 7, Seva Canada and partner organizations the Kilimanjaro Centre for Community Ophthalmology (KCCO) and Seva Foundation were awarded the 2015 Champalimaud Vision Award.

“This kind of recognition for the work, the scientific research, and innovation that we do is really incredible and gratifying, and validates everything that we’ve been working for 33 years,” says executive director Penny Lyons. “When I found out we had won all I could do was sit at my desk and squeak!”

Since Seva’s Canada’s inception in 1982, the organization has restored sight to more than four million people in some of the poorest countries in the world, such as Burundi, Malawi, Nepal, Cambodia, India and Guatemala. Seva is a Sanskrit word for service.

Dr. Ken Bassett, Seva Canada program director and professor of medicine at UBC, told CTV News that the prestigious award is recognizing the groundbreaking work Seva has been doing - especially their role helping women and girls access eye care services. Two-thirds of blind people worldwide are female, he adds.

“The important thing to know is there is no difference in the amount of blindness between men and women, or boys and girls - the difference is the access to services,” says Bassett. “It highlights inequality, and we have been finding innovative ways to get both women and girls the care they need.” 

Seva’s model is simple but effective: locate some of the most remote parts of the poorest countries in the world, provides these communities with access to high-quality eye care, and train locals to continue administering this care to their own people, creating a long-term solution. 

“Most of the world’s blind will not walk into a hospital and request sight-restoring cataract surgery,” says Lyons, noting that cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. “They are too scared, too poor and don’t understand they can be helped…One of our fundamental goals is to create sustainable programs to ensure eye care is available to all.” 

It’s incredible to see the ripple effects of Seva Canada’s work, adds Bassett. Some of the institutes Seva helped create are now experts at finding efficient ways to deal with health problems with limited resources.

“Eye care equipment, techniques, and surgical procedures can all be exported and learned,” says Bassett. “We see the same high-quality of care and technical expertise in the most remote parts of the world…Many of the people we originally trained have now become the teachers elsewhere in the world.”

The prestigious award comes with a one million euro prize, which will be split between the three organizations. It’s amazing how far donations go, adds Lyon. For example, $25 can provide five pairs of glasses, while $50 can provide a sight-restoring cataract surgery for an adult. 

“We’re going to use the award money to create community eye centres throughout Africa, wherever the political and economic structure allow it,” Lyons says. “We want to provide economic benefit to the community and bring eye care to as much of Africa as we can.”

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