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Human Interest

Meet the Man Who Invented an App that Helps Cure Blindness in Africa: ‘The Whole World Came Into Focus’

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Andrew Bastawrous uses PEEK to check a man's vision © Rolex/Joan Bardeletti

Andrew Bastawrous’s entire life was transformed the day he put on his first pair of glasses at age 12.

“The whole world came into focus. I saw leaves for the first time, I’d never seen the stars and I quickly went from the bottom of my class to doing very well,” Bastawrous, 36, tells PEOPLE.

But Bastawrous’s feelings of joy soon transformed to guilt when he left his home in London to visit his parents’ home country of Egypt.

“I became very aware that if I had been born somewhere else, something as simple as a pair of glasses wouldn’t have been available to me,” he says.

Bastawrous resolved to channel that guilt into something positive by working towards a career where he could help others access the same care that had transformed his life. He made good on this promise with the invention of PEEK vision, an app and clip-on device that can transform any smartphone into a mobile eye clinic.

© Rolex/Joan Bardeletti

Of the estimated 285 million people who are visually impaired around the world, 90 percent live in low-income settings, while 80 percent of cases could be cured or prevented, according to the World Health Organization.

“The majority of people who are permanently visually impaired shouldn’t be. We know how to fix it,” Bastawrous says.

The Leeds-trained ophthalmologist realized the need for a cheap and efficient way to identify poor vision while doing a research project in Kenya for his PhD.

A woman has her sight tested after surgery © Rolex/Joan Bardeletti

“I set up 100 eye clinics and most were in places where there were no roads, no electricity and no water,” he says. “And in the remote places we’d get the biggest lines with hundreds of people waiting for us.”

“I realized I could set up clinics every day for the rest of my life and I would barely scratch the surface of the problem,” he continues.

Instead of continuing to build clinics, Bastawrous decided to bring the benefit of a clinic to schools and other healthcare facilities. The PEEK examination kit consists of an easy-to-use eye examination app and a 3D-printed hardware adapter that clips onto a smartphone camera and allows screeners to see inside the eye and detect cataracts, glaucoma and other issues.

© Rolex/Joan Bardeletti
© Rolex/Joan Bardeletti

Bastawrous and his team have worked with education and health ministries to train a team of examiners who can do their work in schools, clinics and even travel door to door. Once an eye problem is detected, the patient (or their guardian) is notified of the problem via SMS and their contact information and GPS data is stored.

“We’re able to track all patients who received treatment and those who haven’t so we can follow up,” he explains.

In its first trial, PEEK vision helped to screen 21,000 students in Kenya in nine days. Screening programs are now being organized for 300,000 more children in the same area of Kenya with similar programs beginning in Botswana, Tanzania and India.

A group of teachers who conduct vision exams using PEEK © Rolex/Joan Bardeletti

The PEEK team also works to make sure that there is funding in place to ensure that everyone who gets screened can be treated.

“In a place like sub-Saharan Africa, the cost of eye surgery is between $30-50 – it’s very low,” he says. “Half the people in the world who are blind are blind from cataracts and we’ve known how to treat that for decades.”

© Rolex/Joan Bardeletti

“There are millions of people who are minutes away from low-cost basic treatment that would completely change their lives,” he continues.

Bastawrous hopes this model can be implemented around the world. And thanks to a grant from the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, Bastawrous has the funds necessary to build a center of excellence in Kitale, Kenya where medical professionals can come together to learn how to implement the PEEK model.

The future site of the center of excellence © Rolex/Joan Bardeletti

“The aim is to say if you want to run a national program in Europe or in the U.S., go to remote Kenya to learn best practices,” he says. “We need to change the thinking that Africa needs help. There’s so much ingenuity and knowhow and knowledge there that we can all learn from.”