Who are Sightsavers? Info about Sight
February 7, 2016
Sightsavers is an international non-governmental organisation that works with partners in developing countries to treat and prevent avoidable blindness, and promote equality for people with visual impairments and other disabilities. It is based in Haywards Heath in the United Kingdom, with branches in Sweden, Norway, India, Italy, Republic of Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, and the USA.
The charity was founded in 1950 by Sir John Wilson and was originally called the British Empire Society for the Blind, then the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind. Its patron is HRH Princess Alexandra. In its 65 year history, Sightsavers has distributed treatment to protect more than 295 million people against river blindness (onchocerciasis), carried out 6.1 million sight-restoring cataract operations and treated 43 million people with antibiotics to combat the potentially blinding infection trachoma.
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In 1950 Sir John Wilson, himself blind, set up an international organisation to help people in the world’s poorest countries see again. In its first year, the organisation (then known as the British Empire Society for the Blind) formed national organisations for blind people in six countries, initially concentrating on education, rehabilitation and welfare.
In 1953, a number of surveys were conducted in West Africa to determine the extent of the various eye conditions. These proved that 80 per cent of blindness was either preventable or curable. Along with trachoma, onchocerciasis (also known as river blindness, a term coined by Sir John’s wife Lady Jean Wilson) was identified as a major cause of blindness in West Africa.
Several pioneer schemes in rural training were set up in 1955 with the aim of integrating blind people into their communities by teaching useful skills such as crop cultivation, fishing, herding and rural crafts. Sir John observed that “In economic terms the cost of blindness is astonishing. Investing in training schemes is crucial in relieving this financial strain and allowing blind people to become independent and self-sufficient.” The following year, the first eye clinics were set up in Nigeria.
The changing political attitude towards Britain’s overseas territories resulted in a change of name in 1957 and organisation became known as the Commonwealth Society for the Blind. Royal status (RCSB) was conferred by the Queen a year later.
In 1960, the first mobile eye units appeared in Kenya and Uganda. In 1964, the charity’s first eye camp in Asia was held at Spencer Eye Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. Sir John recognised the potential of these camps to deliver the world’s largest sight restoring programme.
In the late 1960s an experiment was launched in Katsina, Nigeria to determine whether blind children could be educated in local schools with the assistance of itinerant teachers. The scheme proved highly successful and was the forerunner of Sightsavers’ Inclusive Education Programme.
In 1977 the first permanent base hospitals were established in India to provide low cost mass treatment. By 1980 more emphasis was being put onto local training, which was recognised as key to the success of eye health programmes. In Malawi a training course for ophthalmic assistants was set up, and this now serves much of central and southern Africa.
In 1984, a gas leak in Bhopal, India, killed 200,000 people and temporarily blinded many more. The RCSB was the first relief to arrive and a UK disaster appeal was launched to fund the construction of a new eye hospital to treat the injured. In 1987, Blue Peter launched its ‘Sight Savers’ appeal, raising over £2 million for eye care across Africa, and RCSB subsequently adopted the title Sightsavers. The same year, pharmaceutical company Merck released Mectizan®, trade name for Ivermectin, a drug which killed the blindness-causing stage of the worms that cause onchocerciasis. Sightsavers could now begin a preventative distribution programme.
Around 1994, Sightsavers was instrumental in the development of the Comprehensive Eye Services (CES) model, incorporating screening, treatment, surgery, education and training through to rehabilitation services. The model was designed to be replicated in new regions and countries. Sightsavers also set up training courses in new surgical techniques and supported the manufacture of replacement intraocular lenses in India.
In Sightsavers’ 50th year in 2000, a cataract campaign restored sight to over 400,000 people. The year also saw the launch of Vision 2020, a joint initiative with the World Health Organization and 19 international eye care organisations, including Sightsavers. Vision 2020 was created with a goal of eliminating avoidable blindness by 2020. Also in 2000, Sightsavers participated in the first World Sight Day, which is now held annually in October.
In 2012, Sightsavers led a consortium in setting up the Global Trachoma Mapping Project, funded by the UK Department for International Development. The project, aims to map the prevalence of trachoma as a basis for a global elimination campaign, is due to reach completion in December 2015.