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LMU alumnus engages in foreign aid

An Eye for Africa

Munich, 09/14/2012

Volker Klauß studied and taught ophthalmology at LMU – and worked in Kenya, treating patients and training eye specialists. His dedication to his profession won him the Federal Republic’s Order of Merit, and has sustained a 34-year partnership between LMU and Nairobi University.

Myanmar (Burma), March 2012: Volker Klauß at the District Hospital in the city of Thandwe in Rakhine State.
Myanmar (Burma), March 2012: Volker Klauß at the District Hospital in the city of Thandwe in Rakhine State.

Professor Volker Klauß is never far from his sun-helmet. From 1978 to 1985 he lived in Nairobi with his family, while serving as Senior Lecturer in Ophthalmology at the University in the Kenyan capital. When he first visited the country, it had two practicing ophthalmologists for a population of 12 million. This prompted Klauß to look for a local institution where he could help to train colleagues in his own specialist discipline. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) put him in touch with the University of Nairobi.

In every year since then, one or two LMU ophthalmologists have had long-term lecturing posts in Nairobi. Together they have helped to train more than 180 ophthalmologists from various African countries. “In terms of its duration and intensity, this partnership is unique for LMU,” says Klauß, who is now 70. In fact the exchange program has served as a model for ten other eye hospitals at German universities. – And Kenya now has more than 80 practicing eye specialists.

A sea change in patient care

For Klauß, it all began with the general movement towards independence in East Africa in the 1960s. From 1970 to 1972, the young eye doctor was a medical jack-of-all-trades and health educator in a district hospital in Uganda. “My experiences there in the early Seventies made a lasting impression on me,” he says, and he knew he would come back – to teach medicine.

Klauß returned to Africa as Chairman of the Ophthalmology Department in Nairobi, with a microscope donated by Professor Otto-Erich Lund (then Director of the Eye Clinic at the Medical Center of the University of Munich) and funding from various aid organizations. Over the years, he succeeded in effecting a sea change in the quality of medical education there. Cataracts are the commonest cause of blindness in African countries. The condition, which is effectively treatable by routine surgery in Europe, results in progressive deterioration of vision due to clouding of the eye-lens. “Nowadays,” Klauß points out, “some 20,000 cataract operations per year are performed in Kenya, and patient care has markedly improved.”

In future, “imported” LMU lecturers will spend less time in Nairobi. Klauß is pleased that so many still participate in the exchange program, but he detects a certain loss of motivation among young doctors over the past 20 years. “The training of young doctors is not just a chore,” he says, “it is the noblest part of a university physician’s calling.”

In addition to his annual trip to Kenya, Klauß, long-time Chairman of the German Committee for the Prevention of Blindness, now has plans to visit Burma twice each year. His goal there is the same - to develop the local infrastructure and improve the education of young doctors, in cooperation with Ärzte für die Welt (Physicians for the World).

Both sides benefit

Klauß also hopes that clinics and institutes in Germany will in future display a greater willingness to engage in collaborations with partners in the Developing World as, for example, English-speaking countries do. “Sharing one’s knowledge makes one more receptive to others and both sides benefit,” he insists. “An international partnership is like heaven on Earth.”

His own life’s work has greatly benefited from the support of his wife Claudia. During their time in Kenya, she worked in a mission clinic in a Nairobi suburb, and treated thousands of patients for eye diseases. “You need the right partner for it,” Klauß says. “I had the good fortune to have a wife who is also inspired and fascinated by ophthalmology.”  In 2008, Klauß joined his wife in her practice in the Munich suburb of Solln. The premises shared by the two LMU alumni are decorated in the African style.

A taste for adventure seems to run in the family. Their son, who now lives in Canada, was the manager of a hotel in Syria until the outbreak of the civil war there.

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