The Observatory

Q&A with Professor Hugh Taylor

In the first of a number of interviews with influential members of the eye health community, Vision 2020 Australia talks to Professor Hugh Taylor AC about closing the gap for vision in Indigenous Australia. A Melbourne Laureate Professor, Professor Taylor also holds the Harold Mitchell Chair of Indigenous Eye Health and is the lead of the Indigenous Eye Health Unit at the University of Melbourne. Read on as Professor Taylor opens up about his current research on trachoma, the importance of national coordination in the area of Indigenous eye health policy, the Melbourne Football Club, and his love of Opera!

  • Professor Taylor, it has been said by many that you are a passionate advocate for Indigenous health; what has led you in this direction over the years?

I started working on Indigenous eye health issues with Fred Hollows in the 1970s and continued to work on conditions like trachoma and river blindness, using epidemiology and other public health tools. I did a review of Indigenous eye health for the Commonwealth in 1997 and found that little had changed since the 70s and subsequently not much had happened either. So in 2007 I decided it needed some full time attention to really finish the job.

  • How large is the gap between indigenous Australians and non-indigenous Australians when it comes to eye health and why do you think this is?

Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children start off with much better vision than mainstream kids, by the time they reach the age of 40 or above, Indigenous adults have 6 times as much blindness, and 3 times as much vision loss. For blinding cataract, the rates are 7 times higher and for blindness from diabetes they are even higher.

  • Your current research is on Aboriginal eye health and trachoma. Can you explain the key findings that have come out of this research so far, and what action must take place to eliminate trachoma in Australia?

Trachoma disappeared from mainstream Australia one hundred years ago, we used to call it “sandy blight”. However, it still occurs in two thirds of outback Aboriginal communities and up to 10 per cent of older people have the painful in-turned lashes that lead to blindness. The key to preventing trachoma is to stop the repeated spread of infection from one child’s eye to another. To do that we are promoting “clean faces, strong eyes” as a health promotion message as part of the “SAFE” strategy for trachoma control that includes surgery for the in-turned lashes, antibiotic treatment, facial cleanliness and environmental improvement.

  • How important is national coordination in the area of Indigenous eye health policy?

In preparing the Roadmap to Close the Gap for Vision we did a detailed study on previous attempts to change health policy for eye care and other Indigenous health issues. The key component for success is accountability and oversight. As Minister Plibersek told Vision 2020 Australia members at the CEO Briefing, “if it is not counted, it is not done.” The Roadmap calls on the federal government to give specific responsibility and accountability to a high level group to report regularly on Indigenous eye health to the Australian Health Ministers and to support state and regional groups and coordination.

  • National Close the Gap Day was on the 21 March, what did you want the Australian Government to acknowledge on this day?

We are waiting for the Australian Government and the jurisdictional governments to fully adopt the recommendations in the Roadmap and to consistently apply them. In the scheme of things the amount of money required is almost trivial. We can close 11 per cent of the health gap for less than 4 per cent of the money committed.

  • I am reliably informed you are a Melbourne Football Club (MFC) supporter and have been active in promoting key preventive eye health messages as part of a trachoma initiative, developed in collaboration with the MFC. Can you comment on the outcomes of this program and what it means to you?

We have been delighted to collaborate with Melbourne on promoting our trachoma messages about “clean faces, strong eyes”. They have been wonderful to work with and the Club has helped in so many ways. Players like Aaron Davey are such great role models. He and others have helped with posters, videos and radio messages, but most exciting of all have been the footy clinics the Demons have held in outback communities promoting trachoma messages as well as footy skills. We have had clinics in Yuendumu, Katherine, Alice Springs, Darwin and Jabiru. We look forward to another clinic in Tennant Creek in the middle of the year. Go Dees!

  • Finally, on a personal note…can you tell us something that most people don’t know about you / or would be surprised to know about you?

This is harder than the other questions. I really enjoy opera, especially Wagner, although my wife tells me I cannot sing a note, I relish fine old wine and in the summer just love sitting on a beach reading a book. Of course the best is when my wife and I get together with all our children and grandchildren.