Director-General

Lions Club making a difference in the fight against blindness

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Keynote speech at the annual Lions Club International Convention
Busan, Republic of Korea

25 June 2012

President Wing-Kun Tam, lions and lionesses, Knights of the Blind, crusaders against darkness, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to address the annual international convention of the Lions Club.

The World Health Organization has been a partner with the Lions Club for decades, especially in blindness prevention, care for people with visual and hearing impairments, diabetes awareness and early detection, and screening for cancers, particularly those that are the biggest killers of women in the developing world.

In these countries, cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers of women, and a leading killer. Let me personally thank the Lions Club for funding Professor Ian Frazer’s research that led to the very recent introduction of a vaccine against this cancer.

The Lions Club International has a huge workforce, more than 1.3 million strong. You have the world’s biggest extended family. And you’ve got attitude: we serve.

With your ethic of voluntary service as a duty, of compassion delivered with passion, you represent a vast repository of human goodness in a world where too much of the news seems relentlessly depressing.

Your work, your very existence, in fact, is a beacon of hope in a profoundly unfair, lopsided world of vast privilege, hoarded by the billionaires, the multi-millionaires, indifferent to the misery, the poor health, the early deaths from entirely preventable causes, of the bottom billion, the people who live on less than a dollar a day.

Last year’s massive protests demanding greater social equality gave the world a number of lessons. Social discontent when confronted with inequalities, in income levels, in opportunities, in access to services, is highly contagious and powerful enough to topple governments.

A world that is greatly out of balance, also in matters of health, is neither stable nor secure.

Let me illustrate with just a few statistics. Annual government expenditure on health ranges from as little as $1 per person to nearly $7 000. The difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest countries now exceeds 40 years.

Around 2.7 billion people live in countries with no social safety net to cover medical costs. WHO estimates that catastrophic medical bills drive around 100 million people below the poverty line each year.

This is why the difference the Lions make counts in ways that extend far beyond the benefits of better health.

The World Health Organization can document the impact of your work with facts and figures. Let me give you one, from our newest study released just a few months ago.

In the short span of time between 2004 and 2010, the worldwide number of people with visual impairment dropped from 314 million, including 45 million blind, to 285 million, with 39 million blind.

That is a worldwide reduction of nearly 10% in just six years. Just think of the suffering that has been averted.

These are not just numbers. These are 6 million fewer people who were protected from going blind or had their sight restored.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A few months ago, WHO and the Lions Club signed a memorandum of understanding to renew our long-standing and fruitful partnership for the next 5 years, in particular: to tackle childhood blindness, to prevent visual impairment associated with diabetes, and to provide systems of comprehensive eye care within communities. These are things your clubs do very well in the ethic of voluntary community service.

Together, we are also going after the leading infectious diseases that needlessly blind millions. You have already supported the distribution of millions of doses of medicine to control river blindness.

You have helped provide surgery that averts the risk of immediate blindness from trachoma, a bacterial infection that thrives in the filth, the dirty faces and swarming flies, of dire and miserable poverty. People, mostly young children and women, go blind from this infection in agonizing pain.

Both diseases have been controlled in a growing number of countries, but we need to go further, travel that extra mile.

This is the next target, our next joint objective: to drive river blindness and blinding trachoma out of existence as public health problems, to get rid of these causes of living darkness once and for all.

Just think about it. There are 1.5 million people in this world blinded by trachoma. That’s a number even bigger than the membership of your organization.

Think of how much further we can bring these statistics down.

At WHO, we believe that the end of millions of cases of blindness, caused by infectious diseases of the poor, really is in sight.

As your International President likes to say: “If you never try, you never know.”

This audience will know the major preventable causes of visual impairment, because you are tackling each and every one of them.

Children who need screening and eye glasses. People with cataracts who need simple and highly effective surgery to see again, to regain that gift of light. Complications of diabetes detected and treated too late, or for more than half of the world’s diabetics, not detected at all until vision is hopelessly lost. Measles, which is a leading cause of childhood blindness in the developing world, and is so easily prevented with an inexpensive vaccine.

And this is another added value of this vast network of service organizations. That is: your ability to shape community attitudes and behaviours.

For example, only people who are respected and trusted within their communities can persuade parents of the wisdom of having their children immunized against diseases like measles, or get them to agree to sight-restoring eye surgery, or get them to line up for vision tests and wear the glasses you freely provide.

Ladies and gentlemen,

WHO deeply values this vast altruistic network of organizations as a powerful partner. We are fiercely proud to see the global statistics going down, so dramatically and so quickly.

Let me summarize these results with just three words: awesome, amazing, and inspiring.

This is what happens when a posse of yellow vests, a pride of lions, a family 1.3 million strong, roars into action.

Lions, you are on your way to fully meet the challenge Helen Keller issued when she spoke at your 1925 convention: to be the Knights of the Blind in a crusade against darkness.

Lions, there is nothing you love so much as a good challenge for a worthy cause.

Remember: the world still has an estimated 285 million people suffering from visual impairment, including 39 million who are blind.

Let me remind you: WHO estimates that around 80% of this suffering and blindness could have been prevented or cured.

I know I can give you this challenge with confidence. Because:

I am speaking to a vast / posse of yellow vests
Rappin’ if you have to / to get the message out
Dressed to impress / in your yellow vests
Get the bad guys / save the eyes
Watch out, cataract / under attack.

The lion sleeps tonight? / No way.
No time to rest / in your yellow vests
Forget the “me” / it’s “we”
Planting a million trees
Giving glasses to the kiddies / see?
Helping WHO / turn on the lights
Insight / foresight / all right!
Blind from bug bites? / No more!
I hear a roar / philanthropic to the core!

Thank you.

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