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  • Outstanding Humanitarian Service Award

    2020 Outstanding Humanitarian Service Awardee: John E. Kempen, MD

    Awards Committee

    The Academy is privileged to honor John H. Kempen, MD, with the 2020 Outstanding Humanitarian Service Award.

    This award recognizes Dr. Kempen for his global leadership in shaping eye health policy and for his dedication to preventing blindness worldwide.

    Dr. Kempen was nominated by Harvard Medical School for his creative and effective model to help patients in great need. In 2014, Dr. Kempen co-founded Sight for Souls, a nonprofit corporation with the goal of bringing sustainable, high-quality eye care to developing regions of the world. He took the noble journey of leadership through sacrifice, giving up his tenured professorship at the University of Pennsylvania in 2015 to move with his family to Ethiopia, where he created, launched and developed an innovative, robust and academically oriented Center of Excellence in Addis Ababa.

    Ethiopia has the second-highest prevalence, both in Africa and worldwide, of blindness among people 50 years and older. Most cases stem from reversible or preventable issues such as cataract, near-sightedness, glaucoma or uveitis. Ethiopia also has the heaviest burden of trachoma in the world, a condition that Dr. Kempen's team is actively researching solutions for.

    Dr. Kempen established the Ophthalmology Unit at Myungsung Christian Medical Center (now MCM General Hospital) in Addis Ababa in 2017. The unit serves Ethiopians as well as South Sudanese and Eritrean refugees. In 2019, it saw 14,000 patients with a typical charge of only $10 per visit or $0 for the very poor. Dr. Kempen’s group also does outreach to identify patients needing cataract surgery. They screen 2,000 patients each year and operate on the cataracts at no charge.

    In addition to providing low-cost eye care to the poor, Dr. Kempen started a uveitis fellowship program at MCM and is training the first indigenous ophthalmologist in uveitis in Eastern Africa. To date, Dr. Kempen is the only known uveitis subspecialist between Cairo and Johannesburg.

    By providing services to all levels of society, Dr. Kempen extends state-of-the-art care, which is scarce in Africa, to those with the capacity to pay and uses the surplus from these services to subsidize care for the poor and to grow the organization. Dr. Kempen has proven that a cross-subsidizing, self-sustaining, private not-for-profit model can work in an African country with a huge burden of blindness and trachoma.

    Dr. Kempen received his medical degree from the University of California, San Diego, and completed his residency at the University of Washington. He also holds a PhD in epidemiology and master’s degrees in public health and biostatistics from Johns Hopkins University.