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First Pacific Islander named Fred Hollows' CEO

Regional health and development expert Dr. Audrey Aumua has accepted the reigns of the Fred Hollows Foundation after nearly five years at the helm of the Pacific Community.

Dr. Aumua, currently the Deputy Director-General of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (S.P.C.) will be leaving Fiji for New Zealand to begin her new role early next year as the first-ever Pacific Islander to hold the position.

In an interview with the Samoa Observer, the prolific health and development advocate said she is excited to advance the work to end preventable blindness in the region, much of it caused by non-communicable diseases (N.C.D.s) like diabetes. 

“The burden of N.C.D.s in the region is really at a level that is not only a crisis but an emergency,” Dr. Aumua said.

“This is a major dilemma for the region in a lot of ways because our efforts are not moving us ahead as fast as they could.”

Four out of five blind people in the Pacific could have avoided blindness by treating or preventing their conditions, Dr. Aumua said. 

“Our people are blind simply because they can’t access eye care and it’s really crucial we continue to address this problem.”

The Fred Hollows Foundation has worked in the Pacific since 2002, and primarily works to treat preventable blindness, and to address the conditions – both social and clinical – that lead to it. 

As well as the region it also serves countries across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and in Australia with dedicated services to Indigenous Australians. 

“When you are talking about restoring sight and treating blindness it really is a way to tackle poverty at the community level,” Dr. Aumua said. 

“When you are dealing with children, it changes lives; they can go to school and learn. Adults can take on a different kind of life.

“The financial and social burden on families is really reduced through efforts such as Fred Hollows’.”

As well as deploying eye doctors around the region to deliver cataract surgeries and other eyesight restoring treatments, the Foundation has been training eye doctors locally and developing clinics around the Pacific.

In Samoa, that work has resulted in a trained doctor, Dr. Lucilla Ah Ching-Sefo, who is Samoa’s only ophthalmologist, who runs the Eye Clinic at Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital. 

In 2017, the Fred Hollows team trained 129 community health nurses in basic eye care and identifying complications from diabetes on the eyes (diabetic retinopathy), who are now capable of referring people where needed.

Between 2013 and 2019, a total of 2,773 surgeries were performed in Samoa by both members of the Pacific Outreach Team, graduates of the Foundation’s Graduate Programme and the local Samoan eye care team. 

Dr. Aumua said ultimately the Fred Hollows Foundation would like to see all Pacific Islands capable of providing their own care to their people through the eye institutes the Foundation helped establish. 

“Those eye institutes are doing a fantastic job managing themselves. We are supporting the education and training of nurses and doctors, and we might have to think about ways of doing that remotely. 

“The ultimate goal, of course, is for self-sufficiency. I think Fred Hollows has come a long way in supporting countries to get where they need to with that intention. 

“Training an eye doctor takes decades, but the model is very important.”

In the wake of COVID-19 and its impact on the globe, some of the Foundation’s regular work travelling and delivering eye care will be interrupted. 

But Dr. Aumua said she is confident that the dedicated donors will continue to give generously and that the Foundation will manage to contend with the pandemic by training and helping local eye care professionals virtually. 

“Many of the doctors and nurses who work in the eye institutes have been called to the frontlines for COVID-19 and therefore services have probably been reduced somewhat.

“But with the low level of COVID-19 now in the region, the clinics have reopened and are dealing with a significant backlog of eye care cases that accumulated over the past couple of months.”

Fred Hollows’ Foundation’s outgoing C.E.O. Andrew Bell had served the Foundation for 10 years. Under his leadership, the organisation conducted over 900,000 consultations and delivered around 75,000 eye surgeries and oversaw the training of around 300 Pacific medical professionals in eye care.

“If I can keep up that level of momentum, if I can continue to raise resources needed to keep this work moving through the Pacific and deliver the same level of impact, I will be happy,” Dr. Aumua said. 

Before her role with S.P.C., Dr. Aumua worked for the World Health Organisation in the Solomon Islands, and previously was the Chief Advisor on Pacific Populations at the New Zealand Ministry of Health. 

She wrote her PhD thesis on international public policy reforms in the Pacific region’s health sectors at Curtin University in Australia. 

Her extensive experience in the region will be an asset to the Fred Hollows Foundation, she said, with a broad view of the Pacific and its challenges, strengths and complexities. 

“In this particular role, sitting at this level at a regional organisation I get a chance to not only look backwards but also forward and see the world slightly differently,” she said of her five years as the Deputy Director-General of S.P.C.

“COVID-19 has taught us so much. It has taught us that our development investments over the past 15, 20 years may not have delivered the impact we had hoped. 

“COVID-19 has shone a light on challenges for many of our countries […] we have seen our communities move to states of poverty quite quickly,” she said. 

“When you have a crisis of this nature you get a chance to see what hasn’t worked well.”

COVID-19 has likely pushed an already heavily dependent region further into dependency on foreign assistance, and highlighted strains in its education and health systems, she said.

Education and health will likely take central positions in the region’s recovery from the coronavirus. 

As she departs the S.P.C., Dr. Aumua said she is proud of having driven the organisation to deliver more integrated work to its countries.

Rather than isolated efforts in various sectors, she has pushed for S.P.C. to help countries holistically. 

“My hope and aspiration for S.P.C. is that our members reap the benefits of having the collective impact of technical programming, not just for example in agriculture or oceans but from an agency that brings together all those elements into one approach.

“Listening and hearing [our countries’] priorities on economic recovery, what their challenges might be, I think that is going to be a critical role for S.P.C. over the next four or five years.

“Small island states are challenged and SPC has real value in working with small island states. I would like to think our bigger countries are on a journey for development and have built capacity and therefore may start to withdraw their reliance on some areas of S.P.C.”

 



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