Australia

Eye surgeon James Muecke named Australian of the Year

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South Australian Dr James Muecke has been named 2020 Australian of the Year for his work in preventing blindness that impacts 1 in 10 Australians.

The 2020 Australian of the Year is Adelaide eye surgeon Dr James Muecke, who has been recognised for his work in helping to prevent blindness.

Dr Muecke began his medical career in Kenya, but has most recently turned his focus to type 2 diabetes - the leading cause of blindness in adults.

He plans to use his national platform to challenge Australians' perception of sugar and the impact it has on the development of type 2 diabetes.

2020 Australian of the Year Dr John Muecke.
2020 Australian of the Year Dr John Muecke.
AAP

'An auspicious year for eyesight'

Receiving the award, he made a joke that got a chuckle from the audience: "What a tremendous honour to be named Australian of the Year for 2020, such an auspicious year for eyesight."

The 56-year-old says with 80 per cent of blindness cases avoidable in the world, he sees the issue as one about human rights.

Dr Muecke founded Sight For All, an organisation dedicated to fighting all causes of blindness with projects in Aboriginal and mainstream Australian communities, Asia and Africa.

2020 Australian of the Year winner Dr James Muecke is hugged by his wife during the awards ceremony.
2020 Australian of the Year winner Dr James Muecke is hugged by his wife during the awards ceremony.
AAP

With diabetes becoming the leading cause of blindness among working-age adults in Australia, he will spend much of his time in the public spotlight this year talking up how to tackle what he describes as a "looming catastrophe".

Some of the solutions include a sugar tax, better food labelling and restrictions on advertising, especially during children's TV viewing times.

"People are going blind and losing vision, what we need to do is go right back to beginning and say what is causing this?"

He said as an eye surgeon he often saw patients at the end stage of their diabetes, when it's too late to save their sight.

Senior Australian of the Year winner Professor John Newnham, Local Hero winner Bernie Shakeshaft and Australian of the Year winner Dr James Muecke.
Senior Australian of the Year winner Professor John Newnham, Local Hero winner Bernie Shakeshaft and Australian of the Year winner Dr James Muecke.
AAP

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

He wants to encourage "hard-hitting strategies" to build greater awareness of the detrimental role of sugar.

"And how it's as toxic and addictive as nicotine, and should be treated by consumers, businesses and governments as such."

'Literally changing lives'

The Chair of the National Australia Day Council, Danielle Roche, said Dr Muecke is to be commended 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."

Tennis World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty from Queensland has been named as 2020 Young Australian of the Year.

Obstetrics specialist Professor John Newnham from Perth is Senior Australian of the Year.

The 67-year-old is recognised as one of the world’s leading authorities in the prevention of pre-term birth - the single greatest cause of death and disability in children up to five years of age.

Australia’s Local Hero award went to youth advocate Bernie Shakeshaft from Armidale, NSW.

Using the skills he developed growing up and as a jackaroo in the Northern Territory learning from the Aboriginal trackers, Bernie developed a program to help disadvantaged youth.

The BackTrack Youth Works Program uses animal-assisted learning, agricultural skills and a residential facility to help redirect youth.

The program has helped to decrease Armidale’s youth crime rate by more than 38 per cent.

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