Benjamin Olorunfemi had strong headaches and felt body weakness amid racing heartbeats. When self-medication did not help, his wife persuaded him to see a doctor. What followed was slightly scary.
"I went as advised, and the doctor that attended to me raised an eyebrow about my blood pressure numbers [198/125 mmHg, way above the healthy average of 120/80 mmHg)," 49-year-old Olorunfemi said.
His condition was hypertension stage 3, the doctor explained further. The doctor prescribed some drugs for Olorunfemi, which he took and, fortunately, became batter.
But during his recovery process, Olorunfemi wanted to know more about hypertension and how to control it, so he started reading online articles on the subject. This led him to discover that millions of Nigerians live with hypertension and other non-communicable diseases without knowing it.
His finding was consistent with a World Health Organisation report that says "most people with hypertension are unaware of the problem because it may have no warning signs or symptoms."
Available data further confirms that at least 31% of Nigerians (66 million) are suffering from hypertension. And most of the 1.28 billion adults aged 30-79 who live with the disease globally are from low and middle-income countries like Nigeria.
Olorunfemi takes action to help others
Inspired by his discovery, in 2017, Olorunfemi started a nonprofit organisation, Rays of Hope Support Initiative or ROHSI, to create awareness about hypertension and diabetes (another deadly disease affecting 5.77% of Nigerians) among rural residents of Oyo State in Southwest Nigeria, where he lives.
Olorunfemi started with a post on Facebook explaining what he planned to do and asking for volunteers. He got several responses, including from a pharmacist and three medical doctors who are now part of his volunteer pool of 19.
Operating from Plot 5 in Ondo Road in Ibadan, Oyo State, ROHSI also provides free screening, medical advice, and free medications to patients with hypertension and diabetes via biannual community outreaches.
Once every six months, the group holds a health outreach in a rural community in either Oyo or Lagos State. The outreach is done in consultation and collaboration with community leaders, targeting young adults and the elderly.
Months before the outreach, the group runs physical and social media fundraising campaigns to raise money to buy drugs and handle other logistics during the one-day campaign.
On the day of the outreach, people come to a designated location. Medical experts in ROHSI's team brief the attendees about hypertension and diabetes mellitus, the risk factors, dangers, symptoms, preventive measures., and what to do if they have symptoms of the diseases.
After that, each participant can proceed to see a doctor for testing. Those with positive results are directed to see another doctor who counsels them privately and sends a list of prescribed drugs to the pharmacist, who hands the medications to the patient for free.
"We test for their blood pressure, blood sugar level, as well as their weight. We offer medical education and treat them where necessary," said Charles Fajonyomi, a volunteer medical doctor with the organisation.
"Our mandate is to reach out and impact the lives of Nigerians in our rural communities who are not aware of the life-threatening effects of hypertension and diabetes and the preventive methods," adds Olorunfemi, who studied banking and finance but works as a security expert for a private security firm in Oyo.
Olorunfemi said the organisation had its first outreach in August 2017 at Irewumi community in Oyo State. Since then, it has reached about 10,000 people with information about hypertension and diabetes mellitus, including nearly 3000 people (across six communities in Lagos and Oyo states) it has screened and provided with health advice and free medications.
"At first, we thought it was a joke, but they treated us free of charge when they came to our community," said 50-year-old Imam Ibraheem, who benefitted during that first outreach in Irewumi.
For 69-year-old Taiwo Odukoya, a November 2019 beneficiary from Otun Abese community in Ido Local Government Area of Oyo State, "They checked my blood pressure, and it was high. They also told me my sugar level was high. "[Then] I was given drugs, and they followed up on me from time to time to be sure I was sticking to my medication and recovering well."
As a means of follow-up on its beneficiaries, the organisation created a WhatsApp group where beneficiaries can always ask questions about their health and get advice from its volunteer doctors in the group. The group now has 256 members.
"We ask questions and talk to doctors [on the group] when we need to," said Ibraheem.
Fajonyom, the doctor, said ROHSI is trying to change rural dwellers' attitudes toward their health. And that is because "people's attitude to their health is poor in our part of the world. Once people are not very sick, they don't care about going for medical checkups."
According to Olorunfemi, the nonprofit conducts just two outreaches per year because, for now, its funding and funding sources are limited, mostly from family, friends and colleagues and whatever they get from their social media calls for support per outreach.
He said none of the group's regular calls for support from pharmaceutical companies, local authorities and donor organisations had yielded any significant fruits.
"Getting support isn't always easy. Most times, we write to pharmaceutical companies seeking drugs, but that support never comes, and we have to purchase the drugs ourselves," he said.
He said in the future, ROHSI hopes to build a medical centre in Oyo State, where people could have access to healthcare when they need it for free.
"Our primary healthcare system is not there yet, and it is supposed to be the first point of call for the majority of these preventable ailments in our communities, but that's not the case. Also, the cost of accessing treatment and medication is so high that it discourages a lot of people from visiting health facilities when they have symptoms of these ailments," Olorunfemi said.