Australian of the Year winner announced

 

An eye surgeon working to prevent blindness has been named the 2020 Australian of the Year.

The recipient of this year's honour, Dr James Muecke, was handed the award by Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the National Arboretum in Canberra tonight.

Dr Muecke has dedicated his career to the prevention of blindness and ophthalmic research.

He founded Sight For All in the year 2000, an organisation dedicated to fighting all causes of blindness with projects in Aboriginal and other Australian communities, as well as in Asia and Africa.

Dr Muecke succeeded last year's winners of the Australian of the Year Award, two Thai Cave rescuers Craig Challen and Richard Harris. The rescuers were jointly named as last year's winners for their heroic effort working to save 12 Thai boys who were stuck in an underground cave with their soccer coach.

Dr James Muecke is the 2020 Australian of the Year. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Dr James Muecke is the 2020 Australian of the Year. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP

With programs in Australia, Ethiopia and nine countries across Asia, Sight For All not only restores sight but alleviates poverty and improves the life expectancy of its patients.

Dr Muecke warns Australia is facing a "looming catastrophe" as the number of people with diabetes - the vast majority of whom have preventable type two - is set to double from 1.7 million.

"It is now the leading cause of blindness among working-age adults in this country," he told AAP.

"It's a growing epidemic and it's the biggest threat to our health system."

Dr James Muecke runs Sight For All, and organisation dedicated to combating blindness. Picture: Mike Burton
Dr James Muecke runs Sight For All, and organisation dedicated to combating blindness. Picture: Mike Burton

With programs in Australia, Ethiopia and nine countries across Asia, Sight For All not only restores sight but alleviates poverty and improves the life expectancy of its patients.

Dr Muecke warns Australia is facing a "looming catastrophe" as the number of people with diabetes - the vast majority of whom have preventable type two - is set to double from 1.7 million.

"It is now the leading cause of blindness among working-age adults in this country," he told AAP.

"It's a growing epidemic and it's the biggest threat to our health system."

Dr Muecke has a multi-pronged approach to tackling the troubling problem, supporting a tax on sugar as part of a suite of measures to get Aussies to cut their intake of the sweet stuff.

"Taxing would hopefully encourage people to seek lower-sugar alternatives, particularly taxing sugar-sweetened beverages which are a huge culprit in type two diabetes," he said.

He also wants government to step in to regulate food labelling and advertising.

"Advertising space and time for sugar needs to be reduced, particularly in kids' TV. I think advertising sugar in kids' TV is terrible." Advertising campaigns to make people aware of the consequences of overconsumption of sugar and the effects of diabetes on sight, are also crucial, he said.

"Most of us are addicted to sugar - probably unwittingly. Sugar is as addictive as nicotine. It's a highly addictive substance" Dr Muecke said.

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

Dr Muecke had been tipped as the favourite to win the award, and was nominated for the high honour alongside musician Archie Roach, Katrina Fanning, Dr Geoffrey Thompson, Rachel Downie, Dr Jess Melbourne-Thomas and Annie Fogarty.

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