• Heroes of Vision: Ophthalmologists Honored for Fighting Blindness in Low-Resource Communities Around the Globe

    American Academy of Ophthalmology announces awardees; supports World Sight Day Oct. 9

    SAN FRANCISCO — Approximately 32 million people worldwide are blind, and 191 million have vision that is moderately or severely impaired, according to a study published in the journal Ophthalmology.[i] While 80% of these cases are preventable or treatable, gaining access to the necessary medical intervention or treatment can be extremely challenging for those living in isolated or low-resource communities. In conjunction with World Sight Day Oct. 9, the American Academy of Ophthalmology is announcing the recipients of its Artemis, International Blindness Prevention and Outstanding Humanitarian Service awards, all of whom are physicians working to prevent blindness in low-resource areas internationally. The Academy is sharing their stories to bring greater public attention to the impact of blindness around the globe. 

    "From widespread malaria in Ghana, to  lack of running water in war-torn Burundi, to reaching remote communities in the jungles of Brazil, these four physicians have overcome daunting challenges to provide eye care to those who need it most," said Richard L. Abbott, M.D., secretary for Global Alliances for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "We hope that their service will inspire others to make similar contributions to the fight against blindness."

    Rubens Belfort Jr., M.D., Ph.D., MBA – recipient of the 2014 International Blindness Prevention Award
    Dr. Belfort is the head of ophthalmology at the Escola Paulista de Medicina São Paulo Hospital/Federal University of São Paulo, Brazil and president of the Philanthropic Vision Institute. Dr. Belfort plays a major role in ophthalmic care in the isolated populations of the Amazon. There, he is completing a large-scale survey of blindness and visual impairment among adults, establishing the region's first Ocular Cancer Institute, developing internet-based diagnostic and therapeutic projects and running a multicenter program to promote use of eyeglasses among elderly citizens throughout Brazil.

    "It has been incredibly rewarding to work in the eye care field," said Dr. Belfort. "Especially to be able to witness the advance of science and technology not only in medical sciences and biology, but also their convergence with other fields like sociology, communications and information technology."

    Donald L. Budenz, M.D., MPH – recipient of the 2014 Outstanding Humanitarian Service Award  
    Over the past 20 years, Dr. Budenz, chair of ophthalmology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has traveled regularly to Ghana to treat patients and train local eye surgeons. Access to eye care in Ghana is a struggle; for its population of 24 million, Ghana currently has approximately 40 ophthalmologists, a ratio of about one ophthalmologist for every 600,000 people.[ii] While working there, Dr. Budenz has also conducted several clinical trials and studied the epidemiology of blindness, visual impairment and glaucoma. He believes a major hurdle in Ghana is the lack of sub-specialty care and resources devoted to ophthalmology, as malaria and other tropical diseases consume the government's health resources. Ophthalmologists in West African countries often do not have access to ophthalmic technology and there are no formal surgical residency programs.

    "The most important contribution we can make is to teach local ophthalmologists," said Dr. Budenz. "By teaching a local ophthalmologist to perform glaucoma surgery and manage the patient postoperatively, I can help 1,000 patients rather than 100 in a year."

    Alan S. Crandall, M.D. – recipient of the 2014 Outstanding Humanitarian Service Award 
    Dr. Crandall, director of glaucoma and cataract at the University of Utah School of Medicine, started his global humanitarian work in 1996 and has since traveled to more than 25 countries teaching cataract and glaucoma surgery. Among his many undertakings, Dr. Crandall makes regular teaching visits to the Robert Sinksey Eye Institute in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he has helped prepare the permanent physicians and staff to handle more than 15,000 patients annually. He was also instrumental in establishing a teaching hospital in Ghana, a country he visits each year as co-director of the International Outreach Division at Moran Eye Center, University of Utah. In addition to his work in Africa, Dr. Crandall works with fellow physicians at the Moran Eye Center to bring high quality eye care to the Navajo Nation and is active with the Moran Eye Center's international outreach program. Through this program, an educational exchange between the Tilganga Eye Center in Nepal and the Moran Eye Center was created.  

    "When working with doctors and staff at partner clinics throughout the world, it is so rewarding to watch these talented people grow into the teachers of the next generation of high-quality eye care providers all across the globe," said Dr. Crandall. "Sometimes we forget that blindness and other visual impairments in developing countries have far greater economic and social consequences than they do in more developed countries. Training people in those regions who can alleviate that burden is essential to ending preventable blindness worldwide."

    John Cropsey, M.D., – recipient of the 2014 Artemis Award
    Dr. Cropsey is one of only four ophthalmic surgeons serving almost 10 million patients in the war-torn country of Burundi in Sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Cropsey cares for patients and trains medical students at Hope Africa University's teaching hospital, Kibuye Hope Hospital, all while facing severe resource challenges including lack of running water. 

    Prior to his time in Burundi, Dr. Cropsey – a former Wills Eye Institute resident – spent two years at Tenwek Hospital in Kenya, where the eye team provided eye care to more than 28,000 patients and performed more than 4,000 surgeries. Dr. Cropsey also helped establish the first corneal transplant program in the region and oversaw the creation of several training programs for community eye care providers.

    "It's rewarding for me to bring eye care where it has never existed before," said Dr. Cropsey. "Telling someone who fully expects to die blind that they have a real chance to see again and then seeing that come true is a precious thing to behold. It is something worth dedicating one's life to."

    World Sight Day is an annual day of awareness created by the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, of which the American Academy of Ophthalmology is a member. The Academy salutes the more than 200,000 eye physicians and surgeons who are helping to fight blindness worldwide. To learn more about other extraordinary Academy members working to enhance eye care services throughout the world, and how the Academy supports these efforts by providing educational tools, resources and training as well as volunteer matching, visit www.aao.org/international/humanitarian. To learn the latest statistics on global blindness, view the Global Blindness infographic. Read more about World Sight Day at www.iapb.org/advocacy/world-sight-day.

    About the American Academy of Ophthalmology
    The American Academy of Ophthalmology, headquartered in San Francisco, is the world's largest association of eye physicians and surgeons, serving more than 32,000 members worldwide. The Academy's mission is to advance the lifelong learning and professional interests of ophthalmologists to ensure that the public can obtain the best possible eye care. For more information, visit www.aao.org. 

    The Academy is also a leading provider of eye care information to the public. The Academy's EyeSmart® program educates the public about the importance of eye health and empowers them to preserve healthy vision. EyeSmart provides the most trusted and medically accurate information about eye diseases, conditions and injuries. OjosSanos™ is the Spanish-language version of the program. Visit EyeSmart or OjosSanos to learn more.

    [i] https://www.aaojournal.org/article/s0161-64201300480-6/abstract

    [ii] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3532814/