One of the oldest international ngo’s, Helen Keller International has been devoted to preventing blindness and malnutrition around the world since 1915.
In Sierra Leone, where misconceptions about blindness are widespread, the organization, in partnership with local and national groups, is working to educate people about what causes blindness, and is also working to change people’s attitudes about blind people.
Dr. Mary Hodges is country director for Helen Keller International Sierra Leone.She said there are many misconceptions that are deeply rooted in rural areas of the country.
The blind in general in Sierra Leone are treated with suspicion by the public.
“In some villages along the river where onchocerciasis (river blindness) is very common. A significant proportion of villages become blind in the middle years, and people are very superstitious about the causes,” said Hodges.
In order to understand the basis for these misconceptions, said Hodges, one has to understand the mindset of villagers in West Africa.
“There a lot of traditional beliefs which are described as animalistic beliefs. Current national statistics show 40-45 percent of people in Sierra Leone would describe themselves as Christian. 50-55 percent describes themselves as Muslim. But, there are a good ten percent of people who still describe themselves as tradition believers, and traditional beliefs overlap very significantly with Islamic, Christian beliefs,“ said Hodges.
One big cause of preventable blindness worldwide is vitamin A deficiency and in Sierra Leone, blindness is also recognized as a consequence of measles.
“Helen Keller International and other partners such as UNICEF run a successful mass vitamin A supplementation program twice a year, integrated with other maternal and child health activities,” said Hodges.
Hodges said other successful programs going on now in Sierra Leone include providing books in Braille for schools they support there, and an interactive radio show that educates people on what causes blindness which is helping to reduce stigmas toward the blind.