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James Muecke, a surgeon who has devoted his career to treating blindness among the world’s poorest individuals, has earned the 2020 Australian of the Year award. 

Muecke, originally from Adelaide, is the co-founder of Sight For All, a non-profit organization that delivers eye health care services for free to countries and communities around the world. His distinguished career has led him to providing critical eye surgery and delivering training across most of Southeast Asia, isolated regions of Bhutan, Nepal, and Kenya, as well as throughout the war-torn Gaza Strip. 

The National Australia Day Council (NADC) said Muecke was awarded for “treating blindness as a human rights issue.”

"The 2020 Australians of the Year reflects the many ways in which Australians achieve and contribute,” Danielle Roche, the chair of the NADC, said in a press release. “Muecke’s passionate and selfless commitment to preventing blindness here at home and around the world is literally changing lives.”

Accepting the award at a reception event in Canberra, Muecke said he plans to now focus on addressing sugar’s impact on type 2 diabetes — the main cause of blindness in adults, fastest-growing source of vision loss in Indigenous Australians, and a disease that impacts nearly 10% of the Australian population. 

"What a tremendous honour to be named Australian of the Year for 2020, such an auspicious year for eyesight,” he playfully told the audience at the award ceremony at the National Arboretum, according to SBS. “What saddens me greatly is that much of the time, [blindness is] avoidable, whether through lifestyle changes or more disciplined health checks.”

Muecke added: “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."

Around 45 million people across the world are blind, 90% of whom live in developing nations. 

For the majority of these individuals, diseases and conditions like cataracts, glaucoma, river blindness, and trachoma will be the source of their vision loss. Devastatingly, around 80% of vision impairment around the world is preventable. 

For cases in developing nations, that figure jumps to almost 90%. 

The Australian of the Year Awards also honour a senior Australian, young Australian, and a local hero. 

John Newnham, a leader of modern obstetrics who specialises in preterm birth, took home the Senior Australian of the Year award. At the same time, 23-year-old Asheligh Barty, an Indigenous women and the world's number one singles tennis player, received the Young Australian of the Year award.

Lastly, the Local Hero award was presented to Bernie Shakeshaft for his extraordinary work helping over 1,000 vulnerable children reconnect with their education and community by providing a sense of belonging and teaching employable skills through his BackTrack program.


Demand Equity

This Surgeon Who Treats Blindness Among the World’s Poor Just Won Australian of the Year

By Madeleine Keck