Cycling expedition highlights need for blindness prevention in Africa

Tuesday 26 March 2019
Arclight training in the Sudan with Merlin and Alex

An eight-month cycling expedition by two University of St Andrews students, mentored by record-breaking long-distance British cyclist Mark Beaumont, successfully distributes over 500 sight saving Arclight devices to rural African communities.

St Andrews student Alex and graduate Merlin began their 10,000km tandem cycling expedition from Cairo to Cape Town in October 2018, with the aim to distribute 2000 sight saving Arclight devices to rural African communities and provide training to medical staff.

Now at the half way point in their expedition, Alex and Merlin’s journey has taken them along the banks of the River Nile, through the 50c heat of the Sahara Desert and over the tremendous peaks of the Ethiopian Highlands, across the equator to Tanzania. Along the way they have had run-ins with police, bandits and tribal conflicts. Their travels have taken them through the Arabic regions of North Africa to the Amhara and complex tribal cultures of Ethiopia, to Swahili culture further south.

Arclight training session in the Sudan

Led by the School of Medicine, Arclight is a low-cost, solar-powered ophthalmoscope-otoscope designed specifically as an easy-to-use tool for outreach or screening programmes in low-income countries. Around 285 million people in the world are estimated to be visually impaired; 80% of cases are preventable or treatable if diagnosed promptly.

“Given these statistics we felt moved to act. No one should live any part of their life needlessly blind. The Arclight is an incredible tool that if given to the right people will help improve the lives of thousands,” said graduate Merlin Hetherington.

Alex McMaster added: “Most of the distributions have taken place at training institutions often focussing on final year optometry students and medical students. This allows us to train a large number of people who will soon be working all over the country.”

“It’s been a learning experience for both of us. We are quite happy going in and training 80 to 100 students at a time, so it’s been a great experience for us too,” added Alex.

“We like to make the training sessions as interactive and engaging as possible. First, we demonstrate how the device works then students get a chance to examine each other’s eyes and see the optic nerve. For some it is their first time doing so, and their joy and smiles when they accomplish it makes our day. For others ophthalmoscopy is already a skill they are very familiar with, but they are delighted to finally have access to a device they can use every day, and own!

“We have had to be quite adaptable sometimes. There’s always some sort of language barrier, some sites we’ve had just four of five students at a time, at others we’ve had more than 100 and no projectors or chalkboards.”

Progress has however been halted by health issues. Cycle touring involves spending a lot of time in the saddle, and whilst saddle sores may be a more common affliction, the saddle pressure can cause long term damage to organs nearby. In some cases, the pain can progress to more debilitating conditions like pudendal neuralgia.

After some brainstorming ideas on how to continue, ranging from the absurd to a reclining tricycle with a sail, the pair came up with a solution. They took their blueprints to a local welder and by the next evening had built their new vehicle, allowing them to load up their kit and supplies and set off on a journey of over 300km across the Masai Step in Tanzania.

Arclight Tandem Africa – From left Alex McMaster and Merlin Hetherington in Africa

While walking across the Masai Step Alex and Merlin negotiated with ElliptiGO to deliver two stand up bicycles to Mzuzu in Northern Malawi. The boys are now continuing their journey ‘running’ on bikes while pulling along trailers packed with Arclight devices.

Arclight Tandem Africa mentor and support Mark Beaumont will share about their journey at a special event in Edinburgh on Monday 29 April, CBM presents: Cairo to Cape Town– an evening with Mark Beaumont, where he will also share the story of his own 10,000km world record ride from Cairo to Cape Town.

The aim of the evening is to raise awareness of preventable diseases and funds for the disability overseas charity CBM and the Arclight Tandem Africa Project. 

Alex McMaster is a current University of St Andrews student studying BSc Biology and Geography. Merlin Hetherington graduated from the University of St Andrews in June 2018 with a BSc Medicine; he is continuing his studies at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Video shows Alex and Merlin setting off on ElliptiGO bikes.

Alex and Merlin are crowdfunding to support this expedition. To find out more and contribute visit SaintsFunder. You can follow Merlin and Alex’s progress from their website which will provide real-time updates of the expedition.

For more information about the Mark Beaumont event visit CBM presents: Cairo to Cape Town– an evening with Mark Beaumont.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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