Early this morning St Andrews student Alex McMaster and graduate Merlin Hetherington began their Arclight Tandem Africa cycling expedition. The aim of the journey, which will see the students cross 10,000km and eleven different countries, is to introduce a revolutionary diagnostic tool to help in the fight against preventable blindness and deafness.
Over the eight-month long expedition, the students will cycle on a tandem from Cairo to Cape Town, distributing 2000 Arclights and providing training for people to drive forward their own distribution and education initiatives.
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.
Very few practitioners in low and middle-income countries currently have access to the essential tools needed to diagnose such conditions, so Mr Hetherington and Mr McMaster are hoping to improve and raise awareness of the situation with their ‘two boys on a bike for sight’ mission.
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.
The Arclight allows users to make instant on the-spot diagnostic decisions, and 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.
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: “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, who said that he had “thoroughly enjoyed working with Merlin and Alex in preparation for their tandem ride down the length of Africa.”
Saints Sport have also supported the students, providing them with kit and training programmes, and local St Andrews businesses such as Luvians and St Andrews Osteopaths have sponsored the trip.
Speaking to The Saint the day before leaving for the expedition, Mr Hetherington expressed his relief at seeing their initial plans taking shape: “We know we were aiming for two thousand devices to head out, which was really ambitious, but it looks like at the moment that we’re going to be able to achieve something around that number.”
When asked how he felt ahead of the departure, Mr Hetherington expressed mixed emotions. “We’ve had some quite sad times over the past week because we had our families up, and we had [to say] a final goodbye to them for eight months… it’s all a bundle off emotions heading off.”
Mr McMaster said, “I’m excited but at the same time slightly terrified at the amount that we have to do before six o’clock tomorrow. It might be quite a late night, but hopefully we’ll get some sleep.”
You can follow Merlin and Alex’s progress from their website which will provide real-time updates of the expedition – http://www.arclight-tandemafrica.com/
Photos courtesy of the University of St Andrews Press Office