The Nigerian ophthalmologist Chinenyem Ozemela has devoted much of her life to combating preventable blindness and other eye diseases.
For eight years, she led Nigeria’s only specialist eye health hospital, the National Eye Center (NEC) in Kaduna. Between 1997 and 2007, she chaired the National Blindness Prevention Program.
She also carried out a survey on blindness and low vision that decided to examine more than 13,500 individuals aged 40 and over in 305 locations in Nigeria.
Decades of work and dedication have earned her several awards. And also several stories. “I remember a woman with eye injuries who used herbal juice, to no avail. The woman ended up losing her eyesight because there was nothing more to be done,” she says.
It was these stories that inspired the doctor to think about doing something special for the poorest people in the rural areas of her country. To ATLANTICO, Ozemela told how it all started, what challenges she faces and what her next goals are.
Nowadays, she is the medical director of the Pamela Eze Global Foundation (PEGF), a referral medical center founded by her and her husband in 2007.
To ATLANTICO, Ozemela told how it all started, what challenges she faces and what her next goals are.
How did you start this beautiful work? When did you realize that this was your mission?
Chinenyem Ozemela – From time to time my husband and I made short holiday visits to the rural village of Umuosu-Nsulu in Southern Nigeria. We received a deluge of visitors with one complaint of eye problem or the other.
I had no equipment or medicines to deal with the situations that stared me in the face and ended up counseling them to go to the nearest eye hospital as a matter of urgency. Unfortunately, the nearest was about 120 kilometers away in a big city.
This and other unpalatable experiences of the time left something deep in me – a desire, a dream, and a call to add a little extra meaning to the life of rural inhabitants by making quality eye care available and accessible to them.
How is your work supported? Is there government help?
Chinenyem Ozemela – So far, the work has been supported by humanitarian donations from family and friends. There has not been any direct government support so far.
ATLANTICO – What is the current situation of blindness and low vision in Nigeria?
Chinenyem Ozemela – There is a high prevalence of blindness and severe visual impairment especially among those aged 40 years and above in Nigeria. According to the data for the Nigerian national blindness and visual impairment survey conducted between 2005 and 2007, the prevalence of blindness was 4.2% among the study population, with an estimated 4.25 million adults aged 40 years being visually impaired or blind. Poorer populations are more affected with visual impairment including blindness.
Furthermore, 84% of blindness was due to avoidable or needless causes and harmful traditional eye practices contribute much to these. The main causes of blindness in Nigeria remain cataract, glaucoma, uncorrected aphakia and corneal opacity, while the uncorrected refractive error is the main cause of visual impairment. With the population growth and weak healthcare system, absolute numbers would have grown bigger since then.
ATLANTICO – How has been the dialogue with people from other regions? Have other people been looking for you to create something similar in other countries?
Chinenyem Ozemela – Even though dialogue with other regions has not yet taken off, a key member of the PEGF team has been involved in eye care in other regions, in particular The Gambia. In addition, we had worked with partners across Nigeria sharing relevant experience.
ATLANTICO – How has been the struggle to institutionalize compulsory vision screening in the first year of admission into primary schools? Are there answers to this already?
Chinenyem Ozemela – We adopted an approach for that treatment can be offered before educational and social progress is affected.
The guideline is to train teachers to do vision screening for pupils and either refer to the ‘failed’ cases to the nearest designated General Hospital.
PEGF has started with vision screening in various schools proceeding to Teachers’ training on a pilot scale. The level of expansion will be determined by the availability of resources.
PEGF also cooperates with a local NGO, Health and Development Support Programme (HANDS), that is successfully executing the screening and teachers’ training on a large scale, covering six Northern States.
ATLANTICO – What infrastructure do you maintain today? How many people work on the team?
Chinenyem Ozemela – For clinical operations, we have an outpatient clinic with consultation spaces for ophthalmologists and optometrists; mini theater and 22 wards with beds.
We also have ophthalmological equipment that allows us to identify eye diseases such as glaucoma, as well as instruments for common eye surgeries.
The PEGF 12 full-time employees. Occasionally, a support team is hired ad hoc.
ATLANTICO – You have reached 1300 operations and 21,000 consultations in just 7 years. What are your next steps?
Chinenyem Ozemela – We want to consolidate the eye health program at school, including training teachers, introducing Eye Care in Primary Health Care, training workers in Primary Health Centers (PHC), and establishing international partnerships and alliances to strengthen eye care.