Up Close With: GMAC’s Kovin Naidoo

May 31, 2023

GMAC's Kovin Naidoo

Kovin Naidoo, Global Head of Advocacy and Partnerships for the OneSight EssilorLuxottica Foundation

This year’s new chair of the Advisory Board Committee for the Global Myopia Awareness Coalition (GMAC) is actually one of the organization’s original founders, Kovin Naidoo, the global head of advocacy and partnerships for the OneSight EssilorLuxottica Foundation and former CEO of the Brien Holden Vision Institute.

To learn what Prof. Naidoo has planned for his tenure as Advisory Board Committee chair, John Sailer, Editor-in-Chief of Review of Myopia Management interviewed him in this next installment of a series of interviews with GMAC’s new leadership, which has already included Johnson & Johnson Vision’s Lisa McAlister, the new GMAC Board Chair, and the new co-chairs of the Marketing Committee, Layna Mendlinger, Global Head of Marketing for Visioneering Technologies, and Nitin Jain, Chief Commercial Officer at Euclid. 

To find out what Dr. Naidoo shared about GMAC’s history and where it is headed, read the interview below or listen to it here:

John Sailer, Editor-in-Chief, Review of Myopia Management: Hello and welcome to Review of Myopia Management‘s interview series. I am John Sailer, editor-in-chief of Review of Myopia Management, and we are here today with internationally renowned optometrist and public health care leader, Professor Kovin Naidoo. His achievements are too numerous to mention, but just to list a few: He is currently the global head of advocacy and partnerships for the OneSight EssilorLuxottica Foundation. He’s also the former CEO of the Brien Holden Vision Institute. He’s an honorary professor of optometry at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and visiting professorial fellow at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He’s even a former anti-apartheid activist and political prisoner. Those are some major accomplishments. Today, we’re speaking with Professor Naidoo as the new Advisory Board Committee chair of GMAC, the Global Myopia Awareness Coalition. Welcome, Professor Naidoo. Thank you for being here.

Kovin Naidoo: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

RMM/Sailer: Your achievements in the field of optometry and public health are known the world over. We’re here today to discuss your involvement as the new advisory board committee chair of GMAC. Can you please provide any additional background about yourself and your involvement with GMAC?

GMAC/Prof. Naidoo: As you pointed out, I’ve been passionate about optometry and optometry’s role in public health. I had the good fortune of getting a Fulbright Scholarship and doing my optometry, OD degree, and my public health degree in Philadelphia at Pennsylvania College of Optometry and Temple University. So, I’m also passionate about not just public health approaches, but fusing clinical with public health approaches, because I think there’s often a disjuncture between the two, and the two sectors within our profession don’t talk to each other as much as they need to. We have therefore developed what we call a very elite public health group that’s often extracted from reality. My approach to GMAC and to myopia is informed by that reality. In terms of my involvement with GMAC, it’s actually beyond the committee. When I’d left Brien Holden Vision Institute, Matt Oerding called me, and we both had a chat and were independently working on efforts to create awareness around myopia.

Having been part of the team at Brien Holden that published the paper that showed that 50% of the world’s population will be myopic by 2050, and having engaged with the WHO at the joint meeting to come up with the WHO recommendations as well on myopia, and having been the first chair of the International Myopia Institute, it was very clear to me that unless awareness is ramped up significantly, we are not going to reverse the trend that was developing in myopia. I was talking about doing something about awareness at a global level, and he was talking about North America, and there was good chemistry, and we both agreed that we should set up GMAC. We called a meeting at Academy. We had a few companies there, and we said we need to get industry to drive this because there’s a lot of investment needed. I expected pushback and was not sure about the reaction, but it was just phenomenal. People (companies) just stepped up, including the professional associations like the World Council of Optometry, and GMAC was born. So that’s where my involvement with GMAC started. Subsequently, we’ve had the most amazing people from industry, from Matt Oerding, Juan Carlos Aragón, Millicent Knight, and now Lisa McAlister, who have taken GMAC forward.

RMM/Sailer: That’s very interesting. So, we have you to thank for the formation of GMAC.

GMAC/Prof. Naidoo: Partly, Matt and I, and lots of other people who were at the first meeting, and the chairs and others who have been able to really make a big difference. Our current chair, as you know, is quite dynamic and is driving GMAC even further forward.

RMM/Sailer: Yes. Very exciting. So, as the new Advisory Board Committee Chair, you continue being involved with GMAC. Can you tell us what your current goals are currently since originally you were involved in the formation of GMAC. What about now? What is your involvement as the Advisory Board Committee Chair, and what are your goals?

GMAC/Prof. Naidoo: So, I think the Advisory Board Committee’s role and its mandate is influenced very much by the culture or the commitment that emerged at the formation of GMAC. There were a couple of things. There was a recognition that industry needed to play a significant role and obviously put a lot of resources on the table. There was a recognition that the entire process needs to not push a particular product but push the issue and the awareness issue around myopia and there had to be a real commitment to reverse the trend of myopia. And within that context, it was also felt that there needed to be independent oversight of what the group does, given that the members came predominantly from industry. And I think that was just a phenomenal occurrence because it showed firstly commitment, but it also showed adherence to good governance and accountability that was emerging right from the start.

I would say that the success of GMAC can be traced to those values that have driven GMAC from the beginning. So when the advisory board was conceptualized, and even now, it is firstly to ensure there’s independent oversight of what we do. So as to ensure that any clinical approaches or any health promotion activities are located within an evidence-based reality to ensure that what we suggest to society or to communities is what is in their best interests and that the experts in the field feel that that should happen. And then also for the Advisory Board, because they are well connected within the broader society, not just within optometry or ophthalmology, but within the broader public health arena, to actually advise around appropriate approaches that should be adopted in order to drive the agenda of GMAC beyond what is being conceptualized by the board and its current membership. So broadly that’s what we hope to achieve from the advisory board. But the most important thing I will say to make sure that there is scientific rigor applied to anything that we put forward and that our approaches are located within an evidence-based reality.

RMM/Sailer: Yeah, it is exciting to see industry working together, even companies that would normally be competitive, working together toward the goal of spreading awareness of myopia’s progression and ways to slow it and that there are treatments available. Very exciting that you’ve gotten everybody together. Are there ways for others to get involved with GMAC?

GMAC/Prof. Naidoo: There are many ways. If you look at GMAC and its members, it’s predominantly people in the eye care industry, either companies, the professional associations, the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, pediatric formations, etc. But I think what the Advisory Board is doing for us is that it’s taking us outside that paradigm. The fact that we have optometrists, ophthalmologists, and other sectors. Maybe it’s useful for the listeners to just run through who is on our Advisory Board currently. We have Maria Liu, who’s an optometrist from Berkeley, Valerie Kattouf, who is a pediatric OD, Ken Nischal, an ophthalmologist and a pediatric myopia expert, Donna Mazyck, who brings a really good perspective because she’s a public health school nurse, Kristan Gross, who was when the Vision Impact Institute was in existence the executive director of the Vision Impact Institute and was responsible for a lot of evidence-based  approaches being magnified, Stephen Smith, who’s an ophthalmologist and retina specialist, and given that when we talk about myopia, particularly high myopia and the retinal complications that occur, we felt it was important to have an ophthalmologist with that background. And more recently, we actually struggled on the last one to get a pediatrician on board. And we really wanted a pediatrician that looks at the child beyond the eyes and brings that broader perspective so that we get that input, and we are very fortunate that Natasha Bergert has agreed to join, and she’s a writer and she serves on various advisory boards, she’s involved in social media and communication, so she comes with skills that are very appropriate for the kind of work we are doing. So, I think that’s where, from a GMAC perspective, we’ve gone broader. But I think in the long term, yes, responding to the question you raised about can there be more broad involvement? I think that should happen because myopia is not just an eye health tissue. It’s an education issue because it impacts on children’s education. I think it’s important that we draw more people from the education sector. It’s a productivity issue. We published a paper where we showed that the annual productivity lost due to myopia is about $344 billion. There are various issues attached to it. It’s about quality of life for children who play sports or adults. It’s clinical, which is the obvious part of it, and most optometrists understand that. 

We have to go broader and attract that interest. However, I think we are very cognizant of the fact that we need to get a kind of core strategy in place, and we’ve been shaping that, shaping the core campaigns. And as those campaigns have been growing, the experts that are necessary to drive that agenda are being reached out through the advisory board. And I think more broadly, we will be doing that in future. There is an advantage of having an organization like the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, they have organizations that are not professional eye care organizations, or they have non-profit organizations who have different perspectives from us as clinicians or optometry, and public health people. So there is that opportunity to broaden, but obviously we are taking those in steps. In terms of the advisory panel, I think we have a kind of mix right now that’s really good, and as we move forward, we’ll assess where the gaps are and add more people.

RMM/Sailer: Excellent. That’s a very exciting development. Not only have you gotten competing companies to work together, but you’ve also gotten the advisory board of optometrists and ophthalmologists working together.

GMAC/Prof. Naidoo: Absolutely. Myopia is one of the leading public health challenges of our time. And I do think that if we don’t respond to myopia and we don’t reverse this trend, history is going to judge these professions, optometry and ophthalmology in particular, very harshly because the prevention strategies are there, like time outdoors and the control strategies are there, or the management strategies are there. Yes, there’s debate about different approaches, but we have enough to start engaging patients and providing services to them, and it’ll get better. So, there’s an absolutely strong argument for us to be able to rise to this occasion. I say to people that myopia is optometry’s and ophthalmology’s malaria and HIV time when medical professionals in those fields rose to address HIV in the world and made that impact, it changed a lot of those health care organizations in that space in terms of the scale and importance. We, as the eye care professions have never operated at that scale. We’ve got cataract blindness, we’ve got refractive error, vision impairment, and blindness. We have not been able to respond adequately. We should not let myopia pass us by because we have the awareness strategies that we can develop, we have clinical strategies, and we can respond to this if we want to.

RMM/Sailer: Thank you, Kovin, that’s very inspirational. You mentioned public health, and I know you’ve been involved in health advocacy internationally for a while. Can you describe how you’re ensuring that GMAC is working with stakeholders across children’s vision and overall health everywhere?

GMAC/Prof. Naidoo: So one positive thing was that in my previous roles as a public health person I was working with the World Health Organization through Brien Holden. But after GMAC was launched, the WHO wanted to look at what they call MyopiaEd and were looking at a digital strategy around creating awareness around myopia. And they pulled together experts from across the world. I was invited and Matt was also invited because he was the chair at that time, and they recognized that GMAC was playing an important role in myopia awareness. It pulled a significant part of industry into a WHO expert group that then developed a strategy for myopia awareness. And the WHO, as you probably know, works mainly with governments especially in underserved countries, and when they put out guidelines or the World Health Organization puts out tools, they get more wider use than anything that we can do.

So that is an example of how this helped get us and optometry and ophthalmology into this broader awareness and health promotion strategy of the health sector.

RMM/Sailer: My last question is related to your overall goals. Obviously, you’ve achieved a number of your goals with the formation of GMAC and getting the word out there and providing information throughout the world. Now currently, what are your overall goals regarding slowing the progression of myopia and how are you achieving those goals through your involvement with GMAC beyond what you’ve already told us?

GMAC/Prof. Naidoo: If you look at GMAC out of necessity we have been very focused on specific geographies and I must say for an impatient person like me, it was tough. However, all these chairs and all the members of GMAC and Lisa currently, they’re very convincing. I totally have supported the strategy and have been very much a part of it. We went deep rather than broad. We did significant work in the U.S. and are just starting now to look at Europe and broader. We’ve learned so much, and each time we are getting better at putting the messages out there. We are getting the kind of impetus that lots of other campaigns have not gotten. So there’s a very positive sign that’s emerging. It is an advantage in society when you talk about children. You touch a very sensitive point and you get a much better reaction, but there are not many people who know about myopia, so it’s not only because it’s children, it is about a lack of overall awareness. It’s because I think the power of the message that we are putting out, reaches lots of other people as well. But from a GMAC perspective, what GMAC is doing, and I think now for me, what I’d like to see and, and what we are increasingly focusing on is, how do we develop strategies that can go more broader in terms of the number of countries, but also within the target countries? And that’s going to be a challenge because the financial bandwidth that you have to have for such strategies is going to be quite significant. So, what we are going to have to do is duplicate some of the deep strategies, but we are going to have to also look at other strategies that more broadly touch people with lesser investment. And there comes the concept of reaching overall health and other organizations, I think partnerships is going to be one of the most important things. I’ve always said in this sector, both to optometry and ophthalmology, that if you don’t consider this, that if you don’t partner, that if you don’t partner, you will perish because no campaign, no public health problem has been addressed and reversed at scale without significant partnerships. So, I think that’s where we are as GMAC. And, and it’s very positive to see how the members are engaging in that discussion, searching for solutions, and looking at how resources can be stretched more. Hopefully more organizations, companies, and funders will see the value of what we are doing and come on board. And I think that’s when the real impetus will develop around the work that we are doing because currently we are obviously restricted by resources even though significant amount of resources are being put behind GMAC and the entire program.

RMM/Sailer: I wish you much success with it, much continued success with it. Thank you very much Professor Naidoo for discussing GMAC and myopia management with us.

GMAC/Prof. Naidoo: You’re welcome. Thank you.

For more on GMAC’s new leadership, read Up Close With: GMAC’s New Chair Lisa McAlister and Up Close With: GMAC’s Layna Mendlinger and Nitin Jain.

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