James Muecke

From saving sight to changing diets

James Muecke calls it the ‘humanitarian’ spirit – the animating force to help others born from a recognition that we are all in the world together. And for James, that spirit was triggered by a childhood blindness study in Myanmar in 2007.

James is an ophthalmologist, who was with a team of visiting medical researchers in Myanmar, when he realised that so many of the blind children he was observing should still have had their sight.

‘We found that nearly half of the children were needlessly blind. The thing that profoundly affected me and the team was that the leading cause of blindness was measles,’’ he says.

The impact of measles on a child’s eye is awful – inflammation causes destruction of the cornea and in the worst cases, fluid builds up inside the eye causing it to rupture.

‘It’s terribly disfiguring and painful and the kids are irreversibly blind. It costs less than a dollar to prevent measles in a child. This was unbelievably disturbing… at the end of each working day we were beside ourselves with what we’d seen. It was a really profound experience,’ James says.

James subsequently arranged to meet the Myanmar Health Minister to discuss the extent of the problem. With no paediatric ophthalmologist in the country, James offered to train one back at his Adelaide base who could then return to Myanmar and begin work on treating and advocating for children with blinding diseases.

That doctor, Than Htun Aung, did a year’s training with James and his colleagues at Adelaide’s Women’s and Children’s Hospital and returned to Myanmar’s first children’s eye unit, established by Sight For All in 2010. Dr Aung now provides nearly 30,000 treatments annually and uses his expertise to train two children’s eye specialists each year. His own story was compelling enough for James to make a documentary about his work.

The Myanmar success encouraged James to extend the program to eight other countries in Asia, including Cambodia and Laos, that can now provide speciality treatments to reduce avoidable blindness in both children and adults.

In January, James was named Australian of The Year. His work in fighting blindness in low-income countries is the bedrock of what he does, but he is also an advocate for healthier eating and tackling the scourge of type 2 diabetes.

He has, in various guises, been involved in philanthropy for more than 30 years. Since he established the not-for-profit organisation Sight For All in 2008, James has been able to target the expression of that giving. Sight For All has a four-part strategy – research, education, supporting equipment and infrastructure, and raising awareness. It aims to make sure there is expertise and equipment on the ground across the countries it helps, to carry out sight- and life-saving treatments. ‘It costs about $40,000 to train an ophthalmic subspecialist and about $60,000 to equip them, but the cost of our investment to train Dr Aung in Myanmar is now less than one dollar for every child he treats.’’ James says.

Critical to making a difference has been the support of many of James’s colleagues. ‘There’s a big in-kind element from what we call our Visionaries – ophthalmologists, optometrists, nurses, for example – they all donate their time and expertise, which collectively adds up to 10,000 voluntary hours of goodwill every year,’ he says. Sight For All also has a bequest program for fundraising, email appeals and an annual giving program (Vision 1000), plus a small funding stream from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This year, like so many other organisations, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that all fundraising events were cancelled. It’s been a professional and personal challenge – in the wake of being named Australian of the Year, James was booked for 60 speaking engagements. One by one, the pandemic forced their cancellation.

But there have been upsides. ‘We have a diverse array of fundraising mechanisms: if one drops off, we can still keep going, and amazingly we’re in a better financial position this year than we were last year for a number of reasons,’ James says. ‘Donations have all but dried up, but we’re doing things more efficiently and we haven’t had the opportunity to undertake the teaching trips, so that’s a cost we don’t have to bear. We have taken the training online, offering symposia and workshops, which have been great innovations.’

His own vision of the philanthropic space in Australia offers some clarity about the potential for growth, especially among the next generation.

‘One of the things I’ve noticed, which I wasn’t exposed to in my school years, is that kids these days are exposed to philanthropic pursuits and many schools now have their own social responsibility charter, which is fantastic,’ he says.

‘When I reach out to potential sponsors here in Australia, there’s often a willingness to support projects in Australia…however unless they [as a potential sponsor] are interested in international development, it’s very hard for us to find funding.’

“There’s the old adage that charity begins at home - I believe the Asia-Pacific region should be considered our home and giving back through poverty alleviation projects and by building a foundation of goodwill, paves the way for for-profit organisations to be accepted and grow,’ James says.

His own medical career has been curtailed by a neurological problem affecting his dominant hand that meant he stopped operating four years ago, but he has kept informing, presenting and advocating. James’ campaign against the dangers of sugar in our diet is intimately connected to his eye surgery – type 2 diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in working age adult Australians.

More than 1.7 million Australians have the disease, which can be reversed with informed dietary choices. And that’s where James’ recent work comes in, lobbying the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt to change our flawed dietary guidelines.

‘Why our government isn’t tackling this is beyond me, so maybe this is where my life is heading, to continue advocacy around this devastating disease,’ he says. ‘During the first three months of the COVID-19 outbreak, there were 102 deaths, but during the same time over 5000 deaths from type 2 diabetes. It’s a preventable disease, and we’ve been given the wrong dietary advice for too long.’

Learn more about Sight for All here & visit MedThink here.

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