House debates

Monday, 10 September 2012

Statements on Indulgence

Fred Hollows Foundation

5:26 pm

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Action, Environment and Heritage) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to support the acknowledgement of the 20th anniversary of the Fred Hollows Foundation. I want to do it through reference to my own experience in this space with the work of the foundation across different countries. There are really three areas: Australia, Eritrea and Cambodia. Let me begin with Australia and not with grand statistics but with a human story, because ultimately sight is about a succession of human stories and each life touched is transformative.

One of the stories which comes from the foundation is of Reggie Uluru. Reggie is 72. He is from the Mutitjulu community at the base of Uluru. On his left eye he had an eyelid which had turned inwards, began to scratch and scar the cornea, and this caused a form of blindness. Similarly, he was facing full blindness because he had a cataract developing on his right eye. With the support of the Fred Hollows Foundation, he travelled to Alice Springs and visited the Barkly integrated eye health program, which is a subprogram of the Fred Hollows Foundation. The ophthalmologist, Tim Henderson, examined Reggie Uluru's eyes and he decided to operate the next day. He made a transformation in terms of one eye, with more to be done in terms of cataracts subsequently. Reggie got his sight back. That is one story of one man in one community, but it is also a story of the Fred Hollows Foundation.

Many years ago, my work at university included, among other things, the evolution of an independent state in Eretria. As I was doing the work and doing the study and engaging with people from Eretria—which at that stage was not an independent country but was on a pathway to independence—one of the extraordinary things I found was that there had been this Australian larrikin called Fred Hollows who had done work in Eretria, which was at that stage a site of ongoing civil war in the struggle for independence. He made Eretria one of the centrepieces of his work, because it was a sub state in Africa with virtually no support. After his passing and after the independence of Eretria, the foundation continued Fred's work.

I will just give some figures, knowing that each one is critical.

Across the entire country, the work of the foundation doubled the annual number of eye surgeries and screenings in Eritrea over the past seven years. One organisation led to a doubling of eye health care actions. They created an intraocular lens factory in Asmara, the capital, that produced more than two million lenses for this one country. The Fred Hollows Foundation contributed $1.2 million to building an outpatients department at the Birhan Eye Hospital, again in Asmara. It is not the money; it is the fact that this entire operation, this entire process, this entire network of eye health care came from one larrikin Australian who helped create a lot of cooperative Australians and then brought in people from around the world. Perhaps most significantly, they launched an initiative to help prevent and treat trachoma.

But then you move from Eritrea to Cambodia. When I was in Cambodia in 1998 taking care of the Australian election monitoring mission, one of the things I came across was the legacy of Fred Hollows. If Eritrea has been through a difficult half-century, Cambodia may have been through the most difficult. Of all the countries in the world there are a few that have seen the legacy of complete state breakdown, genocide, dysfunction and human suffering. Into that environment came Fred Hollows and then the foundation. What did they do? I saw the legacy when I was there in 1998. People were talking about the work of this Australian larrikin. That was the way he was perceived—as a classic Aussie who just did amazingly good things.

The foundation established the Ophthalmology Residency and Refraction Training Program, which doubled the number of ophthalmologists and refractionists in Cambodia. That is about teaching how to fish, not giving a fish—and that is the ultimate form of aid. It is creating capacity in its deepest form in a state where otherwise it would not exist. They have trained 19 ophthalmologists and 24 refractionists, and upgraded the skills of 30 basic eye doctors and more than 2,800 eye health workers. These are the people who go out into Svay Riang and Preh Veng and the kampongs of Cambodia. They confront people, they work with people and they treat people who have never seen an eye health worker before. What a figure; what an example! From 1998 to 2012 the prevalence of blindness in Cambodia decreased from 1.2 per cent of the population to 0.38 per cent. In other words, eight out of every 1,000 people got their sight back as a consequence of the work of the Hollows Foundation and its broader reach in Cambodia. Eight out of every 1,000 people could see at the end of that period as opposed to beforehand. The foundation supported 28,500 cataract surgeries, screened 163,000 people, built five new eye facilities and renovated 10 eye units. That is what happened in Cambodia. I remember visiting a treatment centre for people with blindness whilst I was there and it seemed like a big task but, boy, they achieved it.

That then brings me to the third country, and that country is Australia. The work of the Hollows Foundation has focused on Indigenous Australia in particular. As part of that work I again saw what has occurred with the help of programs to eradicate cataract blindness amongst Indigenous people in Far North Queensland, clearing the backlog of eye surgery in Central Australia and helping to establish the Central Australian eye program. The Sunrise Health Service in the Northern Territory became one of the most effective in Indigenous Australia in dealing with eye health care because of the direct intervention of the Hollows Foundation.

But that work continues and, in our own country, it is unfinished. Two years ago I met with Professor Hugh Taylor. He was a mate of Fred Hollows and, indeed, was one of the people who said to Fred Hollows, 'If this work is going to survive you and me, there will have to be a Hollows foundation.' Hugh was one of the drivers behind the Fred Hollows Foundation and it is to everybody's great satisfaction that that approach was taken up. Hugh Taylor says that much work has been done but there are still thousands and thousands of eyes that can be repaired against avoidable Indigenous blindness. The task now—and this is the agreement I have made with Hugh—is not to rest until we have a VISION 2020 program for Indigenous Australia with bipartisan support and adequate funding so there is no effective rate of avoidable Indigenous blindness. Of course there will be cases of blindness, but it is where there is the difference between what occurs and what could be transformed that there is an absolute moral duty, task, responsibility and role for each person in this parliament. If we can complete that vision, we should do it.

My contribution to this is to recommit to the goal agreed with Professor Hugh Taylor, who in turn is carrying on from his work with Professor Fred Hollows, to work until we have a fully bipartisan commitment to a program which will, finally, eradicate avoidable Indigenous blindness in Australia by 2020.


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