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Two Boys on a Bike for Sight

Two students at the University of St Andrews, Merlin Heatherington and Alex McMaster are soon to embark on a unique challenge: cycling from Cairo to Cape Town on a tandem bike, distributing life-saving medical devices along the way. They are looking to alumni to support their journey by providing places to where they can ship maintenance packages, a friendly face along the way, and through donating to the project.

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The ambitious and admirable project, entitled ‘Arclight Tandem Africa: Two Boys on a Bike for Sight’ will take them on an eight month, 10,000km journey along the River Nile, through the Ethiopian Highlands, across the plains of the Serengeti and through the Namib desert, traversing 11 countries, including Ethiopia, Malawi and Namibia.

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The inspiration for their adventure came when medical student, Merlin, heard Dr Andrew Blaikie’s lecture on eye-care and diseases of the eye, in which he spoke about the Arclight, a device carefully designed by the Global Health Team here at the University of St Andrews. Merlin was particularly interested in the topic, and used his medical dissertation to investigate low-cost tools to help people use the Arclight.

The Arclight itself costs just 1% of traditional tools used for the same purpose, and is lightweight and durable, as well as being solar powered, making it perfect for low-resource environments. Furthermore, it takes only one hour to train a group of 20 people in diagnosing the main causes of blindness and deafness in such settings.

Merlin and Alex have therefore dreamt up a project in which they will distribute these Arclight ophthalmoscopes along the length of the African continent. They plan to carry a number of devices with them to distribute. They also have extensive plans to educate and train health workers and medical students who will receive an Arclight.

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According to the World Health Organisation, 80% of blindness is preventable, and the boys are therefore determined to reach some of the most medically deprived regions in the world with this life-saving tool. Alex and Merlin are seeking to make an impact on the provision of eye-care in the areas that they visit, contributing to the Vision2020 goal to end preventable blindness worldwide.

The boys have planned visits and distributions in advance and also aim to obtain feedback and follow-up after they deliver training to the medical students and health workers.

The route Alex and Merlin will take

Both Alex and Merlin admit that there will be challenges along the way, and that spending eight months camping and sleeping under the stars, or in difficult conditions in densely populated cities will not be easy. However, the pair are driven, excited and optimistic about the trip: because they have already shared a flat and completed tandem adventures across Spain and Scotland, they know that they can work together to successfully overcome any challenges.

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Alex and Merlin have a huge support network that includes the University of St Andrews, Saints Sport, the University’s R&A International Scholarship, the Scientific Exploration Society and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness. Merlin was awarded the Scientific Exploration Society Gough Explorer prize for 2018.

In addition, the boys have been receiving mentoring support and advice from Scottish endurance cyclist, Mark Beaumont, who holds the world record for solo cycling the route from Cairo to Cape Town in just 42 days, and cycling around the world in just 79 days.

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You can follow Alex and Merlin on the lead up to setting off on their adventure in October at: www.arclight-tandemafrica.com, and on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

How you can help?

If you are St Andrews alumni and live along their route, Alex and Merlin would be delighted to hear from you. They would love to be able to meet along the way – should their schedule allow it. They are also interested to hear if any alumni who live along the route may be willing to take in packages of equipment and supplies for them.

If you would like to support the project, Alex and Merlin are raising funds on SaintsFunder, the University’s new crowdfunding platform. You can support them at https://spsr.me/tkDU

Good luck Alex and Merlin!

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