Sights set on Africa

Tuesday 2 October 2018
From left: Alex McMaster, Merlin Hetherington and Professor Frank Sullivan, Professor of Primary Care Medicine, University of St Andrews

Arclight Tandem Africa, an eight-month cycling expedition by two University of St Andrews students, will cross 10,000 km from Cairo to Cape Town to introduce a new revolutionary handheld solar-powered diagnostic tool to help in the fight against preventable blindness and deafness.

Over the eight-month long expedition, which begins on Wednesday 3 October 2018, St Andrews student Alex and graduate Merlin will cycle on a tandem from Cairo to Cape Town, distributing 2000 Arclight devices. Developed by the University’s School of Medicine, the 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, with 360 million hearing impaired, and the majority of cases are preventable or treatable if diagnosed promptly. Ophthalmoscopes and otoscopes are typically designed for wealthy countries and are complex, heavy and expensive; their basic designs have remained relatively unchanged for over 100 years. Very few practitioners in low and middle-income countries have these essential tools. If they do, they are typically hand-me-downs that don’t work because they need parts such as bulbs and batteries that are hard to find or expensive.

Arclight is a low-cost, effective tool that enables users to make instant on-the-spot diagnostic decisions. Studies led by the International Centre for Eye Health in London and the University of St Andrews Global Health Team have shown that it performs as well as traditional devices costing up to 100 times as much.

The development of the Arclight has been led by William J Williams, honorary research fellow with the University’s Global Health Team, in collaboration with the Fred Hollows Foundation and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness.

From left: Alex, Professor Frank Sullivan, and Merlin holding the Arclight

Dr Andrew Blaikie, Senior Lecturer in the Global Health Team and Consultant Ophthalmologist, NHS Fife, who has been assisting with evaluation and implementation of Arclight over the past four years, said: “The Arclight is the result of years of hard work by a small team of enthusiasts. These efforts have brought simple, frugal yet highly effective tools to healthcare workers who would otherwise be unable to make the early diagnoses needed to prevent needless blindness.

“The work of the Global Health Team at St Andrews has helped focus attention on the exact equipment and training needs of healthcare workers in low-income countries.

‌“Through sales of the Arclight device here and in other wealthy nations we aim to cross-subsidise training and distribution to poorer countries such as Malawi, where Scotland has strong historical links.

“Merlin and Alex’s unique expedition will not only raise awareness of the Arclight as an important low-cost diagnostic device, it will also equip frontline healthcare workers to fight preventable disability enabling them to give all people the right to sight.”

The expedition is supported by Mark Beaumont, record-breaking long-distance British cyclist: “I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Merlin and Alex in preparation for their tandem ride down the length of Africa. It is a route that I know well, from the sandy north following the Nile and across the Sahara Desert, across the mountains and highlands of Ethiopia and the great savannahs of the Commonwealth Countries from Kenya, this is a constantly changing geography and culture, which makes for a tough ride. But they can look forward to a wonderful welcome throughout and I am sure that their advocacy and events around the use of the Arclight will have a huge impact in every community they stop at. Very best of luck for a magnificent adventure.”

Merlin and Alex, who leave for Cairo on Wednesday 3 October, said: “We are looking forward to witnessing first hand some of the struggles and positive stories from people striving for quality eye-care in their communities. The nature of the project gives us a different perspective of much of the continent, bringing us eye-to-eye with health workers and the communities they fight for. Immersing ourselves in the physical challenge, dramatic landscapes, and the friendship of strangers, we are excited to be in the saddles and beginning our journey.

Merlin (front) and Alex (rear) on the Cairo to Cape Town tandem

“We are determined to achieve our goal of equipping 2000 eye-care workers with an Arclight and increasing awareness and procurement of this economical tool. The Arclight is an incredible tool, and we are excited to be getting it into the hands of people who can play a small part in preventing avoidable blindness and deafness.

“It is a tragedy that we have been able to end preventable blindness for decades, yet health workers in Africa don’t have access to the tools to even diagnose or screen the causes of blindness. It is undoubtedly a complex situation in which holistic healthcare infrastructure needs to be developed in tandem with eye-care. However we feel inspired by the Arclight, especially how it has been designed to meet the specific medical needs and infrastructure constraints of low and middle-income countries.”

Thousands of units have already been distributed to countries around the world, including Malawi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Ghana, Honduras, Fiji, Indonesia and the Solomon Islands, enabling healthcare workers to perform comprehensive eye and ear examinations for the first time.

During the expedition, Merlin and Alex will provide training for people to drive forward their own distribution and education initiatives.

People can follow Merlin and Alex’s progress from their website which will provide real-time updates of the expedition.

Alex and Merlin are crowdfunding to support this expedition. To find out more and contribute visit SaintsFunder.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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