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By Michael Coogan
Calling it a "wonderful partnership of science and public education," NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni recently helped launch the National Eye Institute's Low Vision Traveling Exhibit's 2-week stay at Union Station before about 200 people. Invited guests included Rep. Michael Capuano of Massachusetts and Dr. Dorothy Height, chair and president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women.
"As a leader of the NIH, I want to create partnerships between scientists and the public that will allow us to prevent disease," Zerhouni said. "I believe exhibits like this one from the NEI can make a huge difference in the outcomes of conditions such as age-related eye disease."
The exhibit, called THE EYE SITE: A Traveling Exhibit on Low Vision for Shopping Centers, made a 3-month swing through four D.C.-area shopping malls from April through July, culminated by a fortnight at Union Station. "The exhibit's message is simple: People can do something about their vision loss," said Dr. Paul Sieving, NEI director. "The impact of low vision on quality of life and independence can be devastating. The ability to move about safely is impaired. Low vision can interfere with reading the newspaper, recognizing faces of your family and friends and reading the label on medicines. People with low vision can experience frustrations and can feel isolated. But there is something they can do. Vision rehabilitation services can teach people how to use their remaining vision more effectively, and visual and adaptive devices can help them lead independent lives."
The exhibit, part of NEI's Low Vision Education Program, includes five colorful kiosks designed to attract a cross-section of the population, from young people to older adults. One kiosk provides information on low vision materials and local services and resources, and others feature devices that can help people with low vision. A highlight of the exhibit is an innovative, interactive multimedia touch-screen program that explains what low vision is and what can be done about it, offers personal video accounts of people living with low vision, and shows how they cope with their vision loss and overcome the challenges of daily living. The exhibit also provides a self-assessment to help people determine if they or someone they know may have low vision. It includes information in Spanish as well as audio presentations. Two identical EYE SITE exhibits have been traveling around the country since 2001. By the end of this year, these exhibits will have traveled to 49 shopping malls in 19 states, reaching a potential 20 million visitors.
"At the NIH, our duty and focus is to no longer wait for a disease to harm someone before intervening, but to detect disease early and intervene before it causes harm," Zerhouni said. "This is a fundamental approach NIH will follow over the next 15-20 years. Unlike typical medicine, in which people visit doctors when they are ailing, NIH is asking the American people to educate themselves about the early signs of disease, such as age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma. The EYE SITE exhibit helps provide this education."
Zerhouni said he had "a very personal reason" for helping to launch the exhibit at Union Station. "My grandfather developed cataracts at a young age," he said. "His vision decreased to a point where he could no longer work. My father had to drop out of school to support the family. Seven years later, surgical therapy became available, and my grandfather was treated. My father tells me that during those 7 years in which my grandfather could not see, my grandfather aged by 25 years. As soon as he was treated, he rejuvenated himself by 25 years. When he regained his sight, the jobs and income he had lost, which prevented my father from continuing his studies, recovered, and my father went on to become a teacher of mathematics and physics. In many ways I owe my being here today to science."
In each shopping mall, the exhibit is sponsored by a host committee composed of members from NEI grantee institutions, state agencies and community organizations and groups interested in low vision. Since the tour began in 2001, NEI has partnered with 70 organizations that have provided about 165 ophthalmologists, optometrists and other low vision experts, along with more than 280 additional volunteers. All of these have contributed more than 2,600 staff hours conducting seminars and vision screenings, demonstrating devices and holding Q&A sessions. About 47,000 NEI publications have been distributed at the exhibit, about 5,000 alone in the D.C.-area tour.
Among the written comments received from those who viewed the exhibit: "This is a wonderful thing you all are doing here. It has touched me deeply. I had no idea I was a victim of low vision. The sign spoke to me. I wasn't having fun with family members and friends. I made my first eye appointment and I am going tomorrow and I have a feeling it will change my life." And this, from a high school sophomore: "This is a great exhibit. I learned the different parts of the eye in much more detail than my freshman biology class."
For more information about the exhibit, visit www.nei.nih.gov/nehep/eyesite or contact Jean Horrigan at 496-5248.
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