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DISPATCHES     profiles by mike field

Nigeria

BENEDICTUS AJAYI

Benedictus Ajayi tutors medical students at the University College Hospital, Ibadan, Nigeria.

On a typical
day, Benedictus Ajayi will see upwards of two dozen eye patients, perhaps perform a surgery, receive reports from a rural eye hospital that he founded and directs, confer w ith students as a part-time faculty member at the University of Ibadan, and correspond with colleagues in the Ophthalmological Society of Nigeria (of which he is president). If time permits, he will give thought to the recent request from the Pan-African and Pan-Arab Conference of Ophthalmology that he help create a regional West African association of ophthalmologists to act as a conduit for training and education from international associations.

Not bad for a man who says he went into medicine by accident. “I wanted to be a chemical engineer and I had a scholarship to study in Milan,” says Ajayi, MD, MHS ’84. “But I couldn’t get a passport. So instead, I got admitted to Ibadan Medical School. On the first day, I walked into the cadaver room, took one look, and ran out. I wasn’t going to be a doctor. But still I couldn’t get a passport, so I went back.”

Today, countless West Africans owe their eyesight to this stroke of bureaucratic obstructionism. And Ajayi has found a life’s calling: fighting preventable blindness in Nigeria and neighboring countries by working tirelessly on behalf of public health ophthalmology. “A high proportion of the cases of blindness that we see are preventable,” says Ajayi. “There is cataract-caused blindness, untended trachoma, river blindness, a lot of corneal diseases, vitamin A deficiency, and measles.” To combat these and other diseases of the eye, Ajayi has long championed greater government support and an expanded body of eye-care specialists. “We don’t have enough surgeons. In a population of about 120 million we only have about 250 ophthalmologists,” he says. As a result, the backlog for cataract surgery “is very high.”

Ajayi has helped create and support innovative programs to address the problem. As a member of the faculty board of ophthalmology of the West African College of Surgeons he helped design and implement a special two-year program to train mid-level ophthalmologists to tackle common eye diseases and surgeries. He has led programs to train teachers and members of civic organizations to screen for eye disease and treat basic eye problems. And he has helped cajole the government into more outreach efforts, including regular eye camps, where large numbers of surgeries are all done at one time. “We have seen some improvement. The government is taking eye care more seriously,” he says approvingly.

When asked to list his hobbies, he puts eye camps and rural outreach at the top of his list. “If you are going to practice medicine, you must get to an area that you really love. I wanted a discipline with variety, one that would allow me to get into the field and do different things
at different times.”

Clearly, for Ajayi, the eyes have it. “I am 55 now. I would like to work until about 60. I would like to strengthen the ophthalmology society of Nigeria. I want to see Internet facilities added. We need a good solid base with access to information. I want to help develop human resources, train more ophthalmologists, also make sure services meet international standards, and then, most important, I want to reduce to an appreciable extent preventable and curable blindness.”