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James’ vision helping others to see


Being surrounded by young children who were blind due to complications from measles is a moment in his life that Adelaide ophthalmologist Dr James Muecke can never remove from his mind.

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It was 2007 and he and a team of colleagues had travelled to Myanmar to conduct research into childhood blindness. Their findings were concerning and Dr Muecke was deeply affected by what he saw.

Although it wasn’t his first foray into helping those afflicted by blindness in developing countries, the impact of this visit became one of the catalysts for him and two of his colleagues to formally establish the Adelaide-based not-for-profit organisation Sight For All which now works to fight avoidable blindness in adults and children in nine countries in Asia.

“For myself and the whole team involved in that study it was one of the most confronting and powerful experiences of our ophthalmic lives. Being surrounded by children who are blind from measles, which is painful and disfiguring, is quite horrendous.

“We found that measles was the major cause of blindness in the country, an entirely avoidable disease that costs less than a dollar to prevent in a child,” Dr Muecke told The Southern Cross.

It is estimated there are 1.4 million children who are blind worldwide – and two thirds live in Asia. For many, their blindness could have been prevented if health care was more accessible and affordable.

While the results of the childhood study were confronting, Dr Muecke wasn’t completely surprised. In 2005 he was involved in an adult blindness study in central Myanmar which revealed that eight per cent of adults over the age of 40 were blind.

“It made me realise it (blindness) was having a devastating effect on that country,” he said.

Never one to sit idle, Dr Muecke took the findings from the two studies to Myanmar’s Health Minister at the time and convinced him that something needed to be done – and quickly.

It was agreed that an ophthalmologist from Myanmar would be sent to Adelaide for a year to train as a children’s eye specialist at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

Upon his return to Myanmar as the country’s first paediatric ophthalmologist, Dr Than Htun Aung set to work and in his first year the number of children’s eye surgeries increased 12-fold. Since then he has seen about 20,000 children each year and, more importantly, is now training his own colleagues.

Through Sight For All, teams of Australian eye specialists also visit Myanmar and other countries each year to train and equip local ophthalmologists, optometrists and nurses so that they can comprehensively deal with all the eye diseases that they face, including cataract, glaucoma and diseases of the retina.

The charity draws on the goodwill of more than 130 ‘visionaries’ who collectively donate about 10,000 voluntary hours each year, representing about $2 million of expertise, and impacting on half a million people annually.

Today the charity also has programs running in Bhutan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and most recently, Mongolia.

The impact that Sight For All is having in Asia is something Dr Muecke can be proud of, and those being helped must be eternally grateful that as a young doctor he resisted the urge to ditch medicine in favour of pursuing an interest in furniture design and construction.

Fortunately, a year working in a hospital in the Aberdare Mountains in Kenya reignited his interest in medicine and he returned to Adelaide in 1990 to complete specialty training in ophthalmology. For the past 20 years he has consulted as an eye cancer surgeon at the Women’s and Children’s and Royal Adelaide hospitals, while pursuing his passion for fighting blindness in developing countries.

As part of his specialty training, he worked at St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem in 1996 where he conducted weekly outreach clinics in the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Culturally diverse and steeped in religious history, he and his wife Mena loved the experience.

“We attended Jewish and Muslim celebrations and also sought out Christian experiences as well. We spent Easter inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and on Christmas Eve were singing carols with Yasser Arafat in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem!”

Mena, who is a commercial interior architect, worked on the refurbishment of the Catholic Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu while they were there.

Although Sight For All is now well established, Dr Muecke is still intimately involved in every aspect of the organisation and continues to volunteer at least three weeks each year to visit partner countries.

Ongoing, however, is the pressing need to raise funds to enable the work to continue. As an accredited charity, it receives funding from the Federal Government but Dr Muecke said Sight For All also relied heavily on events, bequests and donations.

“Our problem is not ideas or enthusiasm, it’s resources and financing,” he said.

To learn more about Sight For All or to make a donation visit


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