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Eye surgeon James Muecke named Australian of the Year

South Australian eye surgeon, blindness pioneer and co-founder of charity Sight for All Dr James Muecke has been named Australian of Year for his tireless efforts to reduce rates of preventable blindness both locally and abroad.

The accolade recognises his two-decade medical career, which started in Kenya, as well as his advocacy for treating blindness as a human rights issue. His work has so-far culminated in co-founding Sight for All, a social impact charity committed to fighting blindness throughout Australia, Asia and Africa.

Speaking at the Australian of the year ceremony, Muecke said it was an honour to receive the award in 2020, an auspicious year for eyesight. He also indicated he plans to use the platform as an opportunity to draw attention to diabetic retinopathy.

“People are going blind and losing vision, what we need to do is go right back to beginning and say what is causing this?” Muecke said.

He described diabetes, the leading cause of blindness among working-age adults, as a “looming catastrophe”. He also initiatives such as a sugar tax, better food labelling as restrictions on advertising during children’s TV programs as potential solutions.

“What saddens me greatly is that, much of the time, such complications are avoidable, whether through lifestyle changes or more disciplined health checks,” Muecke said.

“My mission this year is to get back to the root cause of this disease and prevent what will otherwise be our nation’s health catastrophe.”

Speaking to Insight last year when he was announced as South Australia’s Australian of the Year, Muecke said he hopes the award will raise awareness of Sight for All’s work and enhance its fundraising efforts.

“I must acknowledge that this is a huge team effort, not the least of which is the goodwill and expertise donated by the more than 120 Australian ophthalmologists and optometrists who have been involved in our varied projects over the past decade.”

Ms Danielle Roche, chair of the National Australia Day Council, commended Muecke for his achievements.

“Dr James Muecke’s passionate and selfless commitment to preventing blindness here at home and around the world is literally changing lives,” she said.

“He is a fierce advocate at the forefront of the fight against the rising epidemic of diabetes-induced blindness.”

Muecke was also congratulated by professor Peter Rathjen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide where Muecke is a clinical senior lecturer in ophthalmology and visual science.

“All Australians should feel justifiably proud of the achievements of Dr James Muecke. His leadership, determination and passion has improved eye health, and helped alleviate poverty and disadvantage for many in the developing world and among Indigenous Australians.”