Dedication to stopping preventable blindness honored with global award

April 27, 2007

After almost three decades of fighting preventable blindness in third world countries and within Australia's indigenous population, Melbourne eye expert Professor Hugh Taylor AC will be honoured with a prestigious global award by key peers from around the world in early May.

Professor Taylor, Managing Director of the Centre for Eye Research Australia and head of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Melbourne, will travel to Geneva in Switzerland to receive the annual Merck Mectizan Award, presented to individuals who are internationally recognised for outstanding contributions and sustained dedication to stopping onchoceriasis or river blindness.

Estimated to affect around 18 million people mainly in Africa and South America, river blindness is caused by parasitic worms transmitted through the bite of the black fly which lives in rivers along the fertile banks where farming communities reside.1

Professor Taylor said his early work within Australia's indigenous population on the often overlooked infectious eye disease trachoma led him to focus on river blindness in the late 70s when based in the United States.

"Trachoma affects over 400 million people in undeveloped countries - and Australia. It is caused by the bacteria Chlamydia Trachomatis and is a serious problem in remote Aboriginal communities in eastern Australia and the Northern Territory leaving children and young adults scarred and blind2," he said.

Professor Taylor said he felt privileged to be able build on the knowledge gained through Australian studies into trachoma to help develop plans to control river blindness, then successfully carry out field trials of what was at the time a newly available drug called Mectizan (ivermectin).

"In an unprecedented philanthropy program, this drug is now donated to millions of at-risk people around the world by its manufacturer Merck Sharp & Dohme to wipe out the scourge of the disease," he said.

On his return to his homeland in 1990, Professor Taylor continued assisting the international river blindness effort whilst also renewing his dedication to trachoma prevention within Australia.

Current projects include the development of a Federal Government-funded national surveillance unit to monitor break-outs of trachoma and a rapid diagnosis program to ensure those affected get treatment quickly. He is also working on studies to identify how best to control its spread and overcome barriers to treatment.

Professor Taylor has published 10 books and more than 500 scientific papers on blindness prevention strategies, infectious causes of blindness, the delivery of eye care in developing countries and the adverse effects of UV light on the eye.

In addition to the Merck Mectizan Award he has been honoured with a host of other prestigious awards including the International Blindness Prevention Award from the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the Gold Medal from the International Organisation Against Trachoma, the Paul Harris Award from Rotary International and the Mildred Weisenfeld Award made by the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology. In 2001, he was made a Companion in the Order of Australia for his lifelong work.

Research Australia

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