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SA Australian of the year’s tireless quest to end blindness

Sight For All co-founder and South Australia’s Australian of the Year Dr James Muecke wants to use his newfound status to prevent diabetes-related blindness worldwide.

The Adelaide eye surgeon and blindness prevention pioneer is one of the four SA recipients who was recognised at the recent state awards. The honour earns him a ticket to the national awards ceremony in Canberra on 25 January, as well as the potential to be crowned Australian of the Year.

The award, which was the result of an anonymous nomination, recognises Muecke’s humanitarian efforts over the past two decades, most notably the establishment of Sight For All.

The social impact organisation is dedicated to fighting blindness in mainstream and Aboriginal communities of Australia, as well as 10 low-income countries in Asia and Africa.

“I feel honoured and humbled to be the 2020 Australian of the Year for South Australia,” Muecke, who donates 40 hours of personal time each week to Sight For All, told Insight.

“However, 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.”

Muecke, who started his medical career in Kenya, hopes the award will raise awareness of Sight For All’s work and enhance its fundraising efforts.

“Most importantly though, I’m hoping that our work will reach even more patients who are afflicted with blinding and potentially avoidable eye diseases.

“I’m using the award to raise awareness of diabetes, with the powerful message that it is now the leading cause of blindness among working age adults in this country.”

A human rights issue

Speaking of his proudest achievement, Muecke pointed to a project in Myanmar where a 2007 Sight For All study revealed nearly half of all children were needlessly blind.

In a first for the county, he arranged for the hands-on training and equipping of a paediatric ophthalmologist in Australia. Ten years since commencing the initiative, the ophthalmologist, Dr Than Htun Aung, is providing close to 30,000 treatments each year at Yangon Eye Hospital and is training two to three paediatric ophthalmologists annually.

“This is just one of Sight For All’s many educational projects that are now impacting on the lives of approximately one million people every year, both in Australia and in some of the poorest countries of the world,” he said.

The right to sight is a human rights issue, Muecke said, particularly when considering 80% of the world’s blindness could have been prevented or treated.

“[This is] blindness that in most cases keeps people shackled in poverty, with the grim prospect of an early death,” he added.

“This is most profound in children, who have no ability to avoid a blinding sentence imparted when they miss out on a critical vaccination or don’t have access to a pair of sight-saving spectacles.

“Only a fraction of children who are blind in poor countries even make it to a school for blind. It has been shown that for every dollar committed to fighting blindness, $4 is returned to the community, helping to break the cycle of poverty. Fighting blindness is certainly a cause worth fighting for.”