The Fred Hollows Foundation is a lean and independent, non-profit, secular organisation that was started by Fred and Gabi Hollows and friends the year before he died.
The Foundation has worked in over 40 countries around the world and with Indigenous communities in remote parts of Australia, and continues to be inspired by Fred’s lifelong endeavour to end avoidable blindness and improve Indigenous health.
How it began
According to Fred, in 1987 he came back from his first visit to Eritrea “all fired up and got stuck into helping arrange support for the Eritreans”. In 1988 Dr Sanduk Ruit and Gabi organised an Australian support group called the Nepal Eye Program Australia, and fundraising had been going well.
In early 1989 Fred was diagnosed with cancer.
Fred continued working and fundraising and receiving treatment, visiting Eritrea again and Nepal many times, taking the family with him whenever he could. But four years after he was diagnosed, Fred and Gabi Hollows decided they needed to find a way to continue his work.
“Fred and I started this Foundation around our dinner table in 1992 with a group of friends and supporters,” says Gabi. “By that stage we knew he didn't have much longer to live; cancer was making it more and more difficult to do the sight saving work he loved. Fred died less than one year later. It was a terribly sad time, but brightened by the knowledge that through The Fred Hollows Foundation his work would carry on.”
A promise to Vietnam
In April 1992, an ailing Fred visited Vietnam for the first time and, at the end of his visit, made a promise to return with equipment and training.
In July, with funding dependent on his profile and powers of persuasion, he discharged himself from hospital and flew to Sydney.
The money came through four days later and the following week he flew back to Vietnam with an eye team to hold the first modern eye surgery workshop there.
“Six months before his death he said, ‘Gabi, it doesn’t matter if I die tomorrow, I know you and all those people who believe in what I believe in, will carry on,” says Gabi.
Fred died on February 10, 1993.
Just six weeks after his death Gabi visited Vietnam to see The Foundation initiate a training program for eye surgeons in collaboration with the Vietnam National Institute of Ophthalmology. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Gabi.
Modern low-cost cataract surgery
Fred had been raising money to build an intraocular lens (IOL) factory in Eritrea. At the time, treating cataract blindness was prohibitively expensive – an IOL, which is used to replace the cataract-affected natural lens of the eye, cost up to US$100.
Multinational IOL manufacturers refused to drop their prices and Fred decided The Foundation would make its own.
"By significantly increasing the supply of affordable high quality IOLs to developing countries, we will reduce one of the barriers to disadvantaged people having their sight restored," said Fred.
Fred and The Foundation were also able to find Australian companies interested in developing low cost, durable, portable and robust microscopes and YAG lasers for use in developing countries.
“I am, I suppose,” said Fred, “a theoretical Marxist who recognises the productive capacity of capitalism.”
World-class IOL laboratories
In 1994, The Fred Hollows Foundation opened modern intraocular lens manufacturing laboratories in both Kathmandu (Nepal) and Asmara (Eritrea). They started making IOLs for approximately 3.5% of the cost of other branded lenses, and soon high quality, low cost IOLs were widely available.
Each laboratory uses sophisticated clean-room technology, operates in accordance with international manufacturing standards and consistently achieves internationally recognised quality certification.
Up until late 2003, The Foundation provided financial, technical and marketing support to both laboratories. Today they are fully independent and commercially successful businesses, producing and exporting high quality IOLs to over 40 countries for less than US$8 each, generating local employment opportunities as well as earning export income. Between them the two laboratories have produced over 4 million lenses.
The Fred Hollows IOL Laboratory in Kathmandu is now one of six divisions within the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology – a trusted partner of The Fred Hollows Foundation.
It’s up to us to carry on
Since Fred’s death, The Fred Hollows Foundation has restored sight to well over one million people in Australia and in developing countries around the world.
By forcing down the price of equipment and introducing modern surgical techniques, The Foundation has reduced the cost of cataract surgery to as little as $25 in some developing countries.
In Australia, instead of focusing on eye health in isolation, The Foundation’s Indigenous Program takes a comprehensive approach to improving the health and life opportunities of Indigenous Australians, and always works in partnership with local communities and organisations.
“We lost Fred while there was still work to do – now it is up to us to carry on,” says Gabi.
And with the help of our partners and supporters, The Foundation continues Fred's vital work.