Bulletin No. 2, 2019

27 Myopia Terminator Myopia Terminator Jason Yam safeguards the windows to the soul It is no exaggeration to say that CUHK was the biggest winner at the Ten Outstanding Young Persons Selection 2019, with four of its eight awardees hailing from the University. Among the winners is Jason Yam , associate professor of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. He works at the Hong Kong Eye Hospital in Kowloon Tong, an affluent district dotted with capacious townhouses and elite schools. Though Yam grew up in the same area, his childhood milieu was far from affluent—the ‘Model Village’ he lived in was a squatter settlement strewn with ramshackle wooden huts. His mother was a cleaner. Yam used to take his twin brother and younger sister to help clean the streets so their mother could finish work early. For extra money, the four of them would manufacture keychains at home. ‘We were making ends meet but were nonetheless happy.’ Yam’s father, a meat roaster at a restaurant, had only the first day of the lunar calendar as his day off throughout each year. ‘Full devotion to one’s job is a matter of course in our family. That’s why I don’t draw any line between work and non-work life either.’ Yam was an assiduous student and, since junior high school, he would stay up and study until three o’clock in the morning. He made it to the medical school of the University of Hong Kong, and after graduation chose ophthalmology as his specialty. ‘Darkness can be more frightening than death. Being an eye doctor can help blind people regain vision, making it a most rewarding profession.’ In ophthalmology, he focused on treating eye diseases in children. The visual system in children remains flexible throughout the first eight years of life. If eye diseases are detected and treated properly during these years, acute vision will return. If vision problems are not remedied in this critical period, the consequence is a lifetime of decreased vision. ‘It is a basic right for children to have a clear view of this world. I don’t want any of them to have their future jeopardized because of eye problems.’ Seven years into serving at the public hospital, Dr. Yam began thinking beyond treating patients and prescribing medications. He imagined himself pushing back the frontiers of medicine by conducting research and finding new medical solutions, so he joined the Faculty of Medicine of CUHK in 2012 and became a researcher in childhood myopia. Near-sightedness is far from a minor inconvenience, explained Dr. Yam. ‘Myopia is attributed to an increase in the eyeball’s length. Imagine a camera that is pulled apart and the film inside is stretched thin. The photos it takes are problematic. Likewise, when children with high myopia grow into middle and old age, they have a significantly increased risk of suffering sight-threatening conditions, such as glaucoma, macular degeneration and retinal detachment.’ In mid-2018, a research team led by Dr. Yam came up with a solution to myopia by using lose-concentration atropine eye drops—by far the most effective treatment of childhood myopia in the world. The conventional 1% atropine eye drops cause pupil dilation, leading to photophobia and blurry near vision. Dr. Yam’s research showed the lower-concentration 0.05% atropine eye drops could slow myopia progression by 70% with significantly fewer side effects. The team is launching a second phase of study to explore using low-concentration atropine eye drops to nip myopia in the bud. In Hong Kong, where the disparity between the rich and the poor is glaring, children from low-income families are not likely to have their eye diseases detected and treated in time. The ophthalmologist rising from humble beginnings thus initiated a territory-wide eye care programme for school-age children. On weekends, they come to the CUHK Eye Centre to have their eyes comprehensively examined for free. Since 2015, more than 20,000 low-income families have benefitted from the programme. The participating doctors, nurses, opticians and medical students are all volunteers, galvanized by Dr. Yam’s selfless deeds. The programme also caught the attention of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, and was bestowed a large donation of HK$ 44 million to bring in extra equipment and manpower to serve even more children. The service scheme has since been officially named CUHK Jockey Club Children’s Eye Care Programme. As the Secretary General of the Asia- Pacific Strabismus and Paediatric Ophthalmology Society, Dr. Yam has been leading the development of vision care in children in the Asia-Pacific as a representative of Hong Kong. He has also taken up more than 20 roles in the field of ophthalmology and extended his helping hand to rural areas of Cambodia, Indonesia, Xinjiang, Yunan and Sichuan. In a press handout about the newly elected Outstanding Young Persons, the word ‘keychain’ is entered into where Dr. Yam has chosen to best represent himself. He explained that a keychain not only epitomizes his childhood but also hints at his greatest ambition: ‘To achieve something is like opening a door. I may not be talented enough to be the key to a problem. But I can be a keychain that strings together the community, volunteers, doctors, donors and policy makers. Through our concerted efforts, I hope the day will come when myopia disappears from the world.’ Christine N.