This Christmas, the Herald and The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ are working together to bring the Gift of Sight to the Pacific, where four out of five people who are blind don't need to be. Alarmingly, an increasing number of these are young people, suffering from diabetes-related eye disease. This week, we bring you stories of just a handful of these people and invite you to help us raise money for a sight-saving machine that can improve the lives of people like them.
Master chef, Michael Meredith joined the Fred Hollows Foundation NZ's Pacific outreach team in Vanuatu recently to help raise awareness of the diabetes epidemic in the Pacific and to do a spot of cooking.
"Over time the wrong diet can cause diabetes and that can lead to eye disease and blindness," explains Michael. While in Vanuatu, Michael shared his tips on using the local produce to create a healthy and affordable diet.
You are a supporter of the Fred Hollows Foundation. Why did you choose that charity?
I grew up in Samoa and moved to NZ when I was 12. An aunt who lived with the family in Samoa had cataracts and no one understood back then how easy it was to fix. As I found out more about Fred Hollows, I realised how $25 can actually change someone's life.
It would have changed our family back then. So I have a heartfelt connection with the foundation's work, particularly in the Pacific.
What were some of the surprising things you learned while you were in Vanuatu? I was surprised and saddened at how high the rate of diabetes is in Vanuatu. A quarter of the population of less than 290,000 people have diabetes. One of the saddest things I saw was some of the young people who have diabetes and how it impacts the whole family. Some people just accept it as part of their life, as it's difficult to get medical help. Yet diabetes is something that can be prevented or managed through education, medication and awareness about what you eat.
Can you tell us about the impact of diabetes on eye disease? One of the patients I met, Karlpat Edul, seemed like he once was a very physically strong man, but his demeanour showed that the last few years has taken its toll on him.
I felt very sad for him, he was once the provider for the family, but he is now in a wheelchair and has to rely on his family to support him. It made me think how fortunate we are in the Western world to have medical treatment that would prevent something like this happening.
What did you learn about the typical diet in Vanuatu? For me, white rice was the big thing. I was shocked to learn that the diet consisted of mainly white rice and tinned fish and meat. This seemed to be because it's cheap and convenient, which suits the recent change of lifestyle for the local people.
They eat white rice in quite large servings and in about 80 per cent of their meals. Brown rice which has the husk is much more nutritional but shelves in the supermarkets there were heaving with short-grain white rice while there was just one small shelf of brown rice which is a little more expensive.
With white rice you are eating straight carbs and it turns to sugar in your system. Maybe they just think sugar is sugar and don't realise there is sugar in most foods.
• READ MORE: Diabetes 'tsunami' overwhelms Pacific
You held a cooking demonstration at the Port Vila local market, how was that? We served 200 portions and we laid out all the ingredients so the locals could see what was used. The idea was to show how they could make healthier meals with what is available at not much more cost.
Port Vila has one of the best fresh produce markets I have seen in the Pacific. There's beautiful edible greens here with more nutritional value.
They have got turmeric, a superfood right now in the Western world and it grows wild there. And they have got garlic, coriander, parsley.
Add a bit of brown rice and show them they can add a bit more spices into their food. I think they were surprised.
I feel they have never been shown how to cook brown rice, how soaking it opens it up a bit and makes it cook quicker.
What did you learn about the Foundation's work in the Pacific?
I had no idea about diabetic retinopathy. To find out that diabetes through food can lead to blindness was gob-smacking for me.
I was blown away by what they have established on the ground, especially training the local nurses.
I saw the gratitude of one of those nurses, Basil Aitip, who was so happy that the foundation is building a dedicated eye clinic in Port Vila that can provide year-round care for his people.
I left with mixed emotions. Diabetes has such a big impact. Families are separated as people need to come to Port Vila for treatment. Breadwinners can lose their ability to work.
I feel the local Government could do more. It is important as human beings to help each other.
I like what Fred Hollows is doing in the Pacific because they are our neighbours.