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Lumen Winter 2013 Issue
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A global vision to fight blindness

Since graduating with his MBBS in 1988, eye surgeon Dr James Muecke AM has made it his life's work to fight avoidable blindness in the developing world.

The South Australian ophthalmologist and founder of Sight For All has been recognised for his outstanding work with an Order of Australia (AM) and Rural Doctors Workforce Agency Rural Community Health and Wellbeing Award.

James is passionately committed to blindness prevention in Asia and the Aboriginal communities of Australia, and the vital role he plays in training Third World doctors is producing remarkable results.

"Eighty per cent of blindness in the world is avoidable - so it's entirely treatable or preventable," says James.

James and the Sight For All team are bringing eye care to areas most in need, with their main focus on the Asia-Pacific region where nearly half the world's blind population resides. Through the provision of research, education, health promotion and infrastructure support, Sight For All has made significant steps towards eliminating avoidable blindness.

"We carried out a childhood blindness survey in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and discovered that half the kids who are blind in that country were needlessly blind with diseases that could have been treated or prevented," James says.

"That gave us the incentive to bring over a young eye surgeon from Myanmar and train him for a year at the Adelaide Women's and Children's Hospital.

"He went back as the first paediatric eye surgeon in his country of 60 million people. We then set him up in the first paediatric eye unit with all the appropriate diagnostic equipment and surgical instruments.

"He's been back for two years now, and we've recently heard that there's been a 15-fold increase in children's eye surgery performed in the country as a direct result of his work."

This is just one example that strongly demonstrates the powerful impact and sustainability factor of Sight For All's approach - the eye surgeons trained in Adelaide are able to return to their own country to treat patients and then pass skills and knowledge on to their colleagues.

Another graduate of Sight For All's fellowship program has just become Bhutan's first glaucoma specialist in her country, returning home after 12 months of intensive training in three centres by some of the leading glaucoma specialists in the world.

And in Vietnam, Sight For All has just finished its first 'reverse fellowship' where Australian and New Zealand paediatric eye surgeons have travelled there to conduct the training 'in-country'.

As a specialist in the childhood eye cancer, retinoblastoma, James and his team recently spent time looking at how this disease was handled in the leading eye centre in Hanoi and what they found was disturbing.

"I was absolutely sideswiped," says James.

"A third of the kids were going to die because of mismanagement; a third of the kids were blind as a result of mismanagement; and a third of the kids were just plain lucky to have got through without dying or going blind. This is quite simply due to the fact that there is nobody in the country trained to manage this complex disease.

"To see that was heartbreaking."

Within that week James says they were able to completely change the approach to retinoblastoma through some very simple techniques that he taught the doctors.

Sight For All is soon to start training Laos' first paediatric ophthalmologist and future reverse fellowships are planned for Cambodia, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

And while the main focus is on Asia, avoidable eye disease is still a major problem in the Indigenous population of our own country.

James has been heavily involved in campaigns to raise awareness about eye health in Aboriginal communities, where diabetes is the fastest growing cause of vision loss.

Using novel approaches such as a music clip featuring an Aboriginal rapper, an animated video which can be dubbed over with different Indigenous languages and a short film that takes away some of the mystery surrounding the eye treatment process, Sight For All is raising awareness in these communities and hopes to increase the capture rate of patients who require surveillance or surgery.

Passionately committed to making a difference, James finds it hard to pinpoint where his humanitarian spirit came from.

"I always wanted to be a doctor from my earliest memories, and I can't exactly say why - it's something innate, I loved the idea of being able to help people," he says.

And although memories of his student days revolve mainly around the significant demands of medical school, the terror of exams and sleepless nights, he recalls a lot of fun times and is grateful to the University for his medical school training and experiences as a student here.

"It has been without doubt the biggest impact on my life.

"It was because of the University nurturing and educating me to a high level that I was able to build my career and as a result, to help people, not only patients but colleagues and people all over the world."

story by Genevieve Sanchez

Dr James Muecke AM in Vietnam.
Photos by Sarah Martin, <i>The Australian</i>.

Dr James Muecke AM in Vietnam.
Photos by Sarah Martin, The Australian.

Full Image (101.54K)

Dr James Muecke AM in Vietnam.
Photos by Sarah Martin, <i>The Australian</i>.

Dr James Muecke AM in Vietnam.
Photos by Sarah Martin, The Australian.

Full Image (59.38K)

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