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Eye health expert delivers keynote speech at Westminster Abbey Commonwealth Service

Address highlights that ‘poor vision and blindness no longer need to be a life sentence’
aption: Andrew Bastawrous uses the peek device to examine a Kenyan woman suffering from blindness. Credit: Rolex/Joan Bardeletti

“For the first time in human history, it is within our power to eliminate avoidable blindness and poor vision, for everybody, everywhere,” said Dr Andrew Bastawrous, Assistant Professor in International Eye Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), during the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey on 12 March.

In his keynote speech, Dr Bastawrous highlighted to the 2,000-strong congregation and millions watching around the world that “advances in technology, treatment and public health mean that for most, poor vision and blindness no longer need to be a life sentence” and that “every country in the Commonwealth has the opportunity to transform their citizens’ eye health, in a matter of years, not generations.”

The Commonwealth Service is Britain's largest annual inter-faith gathering held to mark Commonwealth Day, the annual celebration of the Commonwealth of Nations. The theme of this year’s Service was ‘Towards a common future,’ ensuring that the Commonwealth is responsive to global challenges and delivers a more prosperous, secure, sustainable and fair future for all citizens, particularly its young people.

The congregation included Her Majesty The Queen, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry and Ms. Meghan Markle, the UK Prime Minister, The Rt. Hon Theresa May MP, diplomatic representatives from across the UK and Commonwealth, faith leaders and more than 800 school children and young people.

"the work wouldn’t be possible without collaboration from our friends and partners in Kenya, India, Botswana and beyond" - Andrew Bastawrous

Dr Bastawrous is also Chief Executive Officer of social enterprise Peek which is working to create sustainable access to eye care. He reflected on the work of Peek which is contributing to the Botswana government’s programme to screen and treat every schoolchild’s eyes by 2020, highlighting that “no country can do this alone,” and that the “work wouldn’t be possible without collaboration from our friends and partners in Kenya, India, Botswana and beyond.  That is why the Commonwealth is so important - we have a shared history, but more importantly we have a shared future.”

Dr Bastawrous said: “I am very grateful and honoured for the opportunity to have given this address in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen. There are 85 million people across the Commonwealth who are blind or have very poor sight, and four in five unnecessarily so. When it comes to eye health, we have the tools and ability to restore sight to the majority of visually impaired people.”

During his speech, Dr Bastawrous touched on the announcement by The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust (the Trust) that it has begun working on the new $1bn Vision Catalyst Fund - an ambitious multi-stakeholder initiative to bring eye care to all people in the Commonwealth and around the world.

Building on the major achievements in eye health over recent years led by governments, NGOs, philanthropists and corporates, the Trust is joining forces with civil society, public and private sector organisations with expertise in eye health to develop the Vision Catalyst Fund over the next two years.

Caption: Cataract diagnosis via Peek technology in Kenya. Credit: Andrew Bastawrous
​ Caption: Cataract diagnosis via Peek technology in Kenya. Credit: Andrew Bastawrous Caption: Cataract diagnosis via Peek tech

Professor Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “Many congratulations to Andrew. To have delivered the Commonwealth Service keynote speech is recognition of his and the Peek team’s skill and dedication, which is proving life-changing for a huge number of people.  I welcome the announcement of the exciting new Vision Catalyst Fund. Drawing together major influencers from across many sectors should spark change in the delivery of eye health services, potentially bringing sight to millions around the world.”

Through the International Centre for Eye Health (ICEH), LSHTM and partners are working to improve eye health and eliminate avoidable visual impairment and blindness, with a focus on low-income populations. ICEH’s research provides valuable information and evidence in support of the VISION 2020 initiative to eliminate global avoidable blindness.

LSHTM also co-ordinates the Commonwealth Eye Health Consortium (CEHC) - a group of eye health organisations from several Commonwealth countries working together to deliver an exciting, integrated, five-year programme of fellowships, research and technology. Over the long-term, CEHC aims to strengthen eye health systems and quality of eye care throughout the Commonwealth.

Watch the video of Andrew Bastawrous' speech from The Commonwealth Service held at Westminster Abbey below: