Seeing the world in all its beauty
James's mission to fight avoidable blindness.
Eighty per cent of the world’s visual impairment and blindness is avoidable, according to Australian of the Year and alumnus Dr James Muecke AM. It’s this idea that has motivated James throughout his career. It’s what took him out of Australia and to Asia to provide his expertise, where access to healthcare is a human rights issue.
It is also the impetus behind Sight for All, the not-for-profit organisation James started with colleagues to provide eye health care projects, to not only reduce blindness but to alleviate poverty and save lives in some of the poorest communities in the world.
“It was just something that was inside me and I knew, for as long as I can remember, probably as young as seven or eight years of age, that I wanted to do medicine.”
He worked hard in school to get into medicine, and then throughout University at Adelaide Medical School, with his sights set firmly on becoming a surgeon.
In the fifth year of his medical degree, James went to Kenya for an elective – it was a life-changing experience.
“I came across this little rural hospital in the mountains, a place called Tumu Tumu. There were a couple of Aussie ‘med’ students there who invited me to come and have a look, and I just fell in love with the place. It was beautiful and I thought, one day I'd love to come back and work here,” he said.
After completing an internship at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and having become disillusioned and unsatisfied in treating patients with mainly self-inflicted diseases, James returned to Kenya and the little hospital where he could make a real difference.
“I went straight back there and had a transformative year...we had such positive outcomes mostly, treating diseases that you could actually do something about, and that transformed my idea of what I wanted to do, but also instilled in me a desire to continue working in public health in poorer countries,” he said.
"To be surrounded by children who are blind and disfigured irreversibly from measles was absolutely gobsmacking, and the whole team involved was quite emotionally impacted by this.”Dr James Muecke AM
At the same time, James was very interested in ophthalmology, the study of medical and surgical conditions relating to the eyes, and felt this was a field where he could really make a difference.
“So that's where the path took me.” James was thrilled to get a call from the Director of the Department of Ophthalmology at Royal Adelaide Hospital, Colin Moore, offering him a job, and he came back to Adelaide to start ophthalmology training in 1990.
For James, the driving force to start Sight for All came from several powerful experiences. The first being an adult blindness study in Myanmar in 2005, which was followed by a childhood blindness study in 2007.
“I was in my early 40s at the time, and I was seeing adults younger than me who were blind from cataracts, a cause of blindness we rarely see here in Australia.
“And to see person after person after person blind from a completely avoidable, readily treatable condition was staggering to me,” he said.
In the childhood blindness study in Myanmar the results were heartbreaking.
“We found that measles was the leading cause of blindness – to be surrounded by children who are blind and disfigured irreversibly from measles was absolutely gobsmacking, and the whole team involved was quite emotionally impacted by this,” said James.
These experiences inspired James and some of his colleagues, with funding from AusAID (now the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), to establish a comprehensive national program in Myanmar to address several issues, including training doctors across a number of sub-specialities of eye health, and equipping more than 30 regionalised centres throughout the country.
The published findings of the study led to a Myanmar eye specialist being brought to Australia to be trained as a paediatric ophthalmologist with James and his colleagues.
"That was a wonderful thing – and he's been back there for 10 years now and is providing close to 30,000 treatments every year. And he's training two paediatric ophthalmologists every year using the expertise he gained here in Adelaide," said James.
There has been quite the turnaround. According to a 2018 follow-up study in Myanmar, the level of avoidable childhood blindness has started to fall.
Back in Australia, James is also determined to reduce the level of avoidable blindness caused by diseases such as diabetes, which is the leading cause of blindness among working age adults, and the fastest growing cause of vision loss in Aboriginal people.
“Unlike in countries such as Myanmar, where access to healthcare is a major issue, it’s not the case here. Diabetes is a leading cause of blindness because more than half of the patients with this disease are not having their regular sight-saving eye checks,” said James.
There is an estimated 1.7 million people with diabetes in Australia and 90 per cent are type 2.
“What’s extraordinary, and surprisingly little known, is that type 2 diabetes and its complications are often preventable and reversible in many through diet and lifestyle factors. Modifiable risk factors include unhealthy diets (too much added sugar and refined carbohydrates), being physically inactive, and weight gain,” said James.
As Australian of the Year, James is on a mission to raise awareness of this serious issue and provide strategies to not only reduce the number of people losing vision or going blind because of diabetes, but also to prevent type 2 diabetes in the first place, including waging war on sugar.
James's work and travel have enabled him to dabble in photography, a much enjoyed hobby. In fact, photography and other art exhibitions have become an important part of fundraising for Sight for All programs.
“A lot of what we do is around art, because loss of our ability to appreciate art and the beauty of the world would be a devastating thing for many, many people,” he said.
Learn more about Sight for All from sightforall.org
Story by Kelly Brown
Photos by Meaghan Coles