A cross section of students and resource persons at the BFO Foundation seminar held in Lagos

After the painful experience of losing his beloved brother to diabetes, a disease he felt could have been well managed if they had adequate knowledge of the ailment, Tope Tosin Owolabi decided to embark on a radical and massive awareness on this silent killer disease and this occasioned the establishment of the Babatunde Femi Owolabi Memorial Heart Foundation many years back. Named after his late brother, the foundation is dedicated to leading the fight against cardiovascular diseases and related conditions with an objective to give Nigerians opportunity to know their health status and to educate them on how to prevent these diseases bearing in mind that ignorance, poverty and lack of periodic medical check-up are some of the factors that aggravate cardiovascular diseases. Mary Ekah writes on the Foundation’s recent attempt to further spread the gospel

The Babatunde Femi Owolabi (BFO) Memorial Heart Foundation saves lives and improves health through its awareness campaign of the dangers of undetected heart related issues and provides free medical screening for all. In the previous year, the Foundation provided medical screening for over 250 participants during a free screening exercise conducted in Ado Ekiti, Ekiti State. Over the years, it has helped to increase the number of people who know their health status in Nigeria and has hopefully reduced the number of deaths as a result of heart diseases. Despite its efforts to reduce the incidence of heart diseases in Nigeria, cardiovascular disease which include heart attack, stroke and blood vessel disease, remains one of Nigeria’s most devastating health problems.

Not relenting in its efforts, the foundation felt there was need to still spread more information on these killer diseases and so during its annual workshop this year, it decided to take its struggles to educate Nigerians on cardiovascular diseases to another level by appointing ambassadors to carry on with the Foundation’s core message of educating the masses and saving lives through its ‘Save a Heart Initiative’, where students were asked to write essays about heart disease and winners of the competition were picked as the Foundation’s ambassadors.

The Founder, BFO Foundation, Mr. Tope Owolabi, who said the Foundation was established out of conviction that there was an urgent need to re-orientate Nigerians on the undesirable effects of cardiovascular diseases, revealed that the disease had in the past affected some members of his family.

“We didn’t want other Nigerians to go through what we have gone through in my family. I lost a brother of mine to diabetes, which is a form of cardiovascular diseases. I discovered that this could have been taken care of if we had good knowledge of the disease beforehand. I realised that having diabetes is not a death sentence as many may think all because in this part of the world, people are not well educated on cardiovascular diseases. Losing a brother that is very dear to me was so heartbroken; it was not just losing a brother but a breadwinner who had a wife and children and other extended family members. It was more devastating to realise that we lost him to a disease that could have been managed if there was more education and awareness,” he recalled.

So with this at the back of his mind, Owolabi decided to embark on aggressive campaign to change people’s mind-sets, especially in Nigeria and Africa as a whole, on how they observe their health without taking the slightest things for granted.

“So what we are trying to do with this Foundation is to educate people massively on various causes of heart diseases. And so we hold seminars regularly at the grassroots levels to educate people on the implication of living with heart disease and what they can do to prevent it and ultimately to save a life, which is our eventual goal. Right now we have over 50 volunteers moving around villages and towns creating awareness in order to increase the consciousness level,” he noted further.

Owolabi, who resides abroad, revealed that he was in the country last March during which he held awareness campaign in six different communities reaching out to over 3,000 people in various parts of Nigeria. This time the Foundation, he said, has come up with the “Save a Heart Initiative.” With this initiative, the Foundation has embarked on campaigns in schools where ambassadors are picked to propagate the message.
In the last five years,Owolabi has run the foundation with his personal funds but this time he needs huge supports. He therefore appealed fervently to Nigerians to join hands and fight cardiovascular diseases, which has taken away so many productive lives.

Owolabi, who has been working as a technician for seven year now in Atlanta, Georgia, where he lives, said: “This is my own way of giving back to society and saving lives. Right now, the Foundation’s activities are becoming bigger and bigger and have gotten to a stage where I can no longer do it alone. That is why we I am appealing to individuals and groups to join us in this crusade. I work in Atlanta where I live and I have a limited income to carry out these activities.”

Explaining the modalities for the competition from which the Foundation’s new ambassadors emerged, a board member of the Foundation, Maero Ozako, said, “We knew he has been working in the hinterland, but he needed to bring the message to the city where there is a high incidence of cardiovascular diseases and that was how the idea of ‘Save a Heart Initiative’ came up and what we did was to come up with the idea of running an essay competition with the topic, ‘Nurturing Your Heart in Modern Day Nigeria’. And from the numerous essays written by the students, we chose a few who had the best articles to be the BFO Foundation ambassadors. Now, the task is very simple. They are to go out there, talk and convert people, telling them to change the way they eat, which is very important.”

Some of the newly appointed ambassadors spoke with THISDAY. For Anjola Ajayi, a Year 12 student of Chrisland High School, VGC, being an ambassador means she is a representative of the BFO Foundation everywhere she goes. “That means I have to learn more about hypertension, diabetes, and about all the cardiovascular diseases so that I can help and educate others on the best way to avoid having heart disease and also how to manage it if they occur,” she said.

On her role as an ambassador of the Foundation, she said, “I will start from my school, educating students on the basic information they need pertaining to this disease and I will also talk to my parents to spread the information at their places of work and that if they want to have some kind of seminar, I will come and represent the Foundation where I would talk about heart disease, causes and prevention.”
Another ambassador, Favour Nkemkah, a 15 years old student from Chrisland High Shool, Ikeja, said, “I am proud to be an ambassador of the BFO Foundation and I promise to do my best in enlightening people on how to care for themselves and also live a healthy lifestyle in order to avoid developing any form of heart disease.”

Speaking on what inspired her interest in the competition, she said, “Looking at my surroundings here, I realised that there were people with different shapes and sizes – from the very skinny to the very obese, some of whom might be susceptible to heart diseases and so I thought the best way to educate them on healthy living was to enlighten them on how they can take preventive measures on heart diseases.”

President–elect, Medical Women Association of Nigeria, Lagos State Chapter and guest speaker at the event, Dr. Omowunmi Bakare, during her talk, enumerated the various kinds of heart diseases, the risk factors and basically what can be done to curtail or prevent occurrence of any form of heart disease.

She said: “Some of these heart diseases are modifiable while some are non-modifiable. The non-modifiable is the fact that you cannot change your gender, the fact that you are born to a particular race and you cannot change that. The modifiable ones are ones that we have choices to make in respect of what we eat. We need to make healthy choices for us to have healthy hearts and we also need to do some form of exercises at least 30 minutes a day and five times in a week to help our hearts to be in good shape. We also need to check our blood pressure regularly and you also need to check your blood glucose from time to time especially when you are above 40, you need to do regular and comprehensive check-ups. And if you smoke, you also need to stop because these are risk factors for cardiovascular disease and you need to ensure that you reduce alcoholic consumptions. These are choices that we can make that can reduce our chances of being prone to heart diseases.

“So basically what we have done here today, is to create awareness among the children because as ambassadors of cardiovascular health, we see them as change agents and our eating habits are formed from our young age and as we get older we get used to all these habits of feeding. So, as early as possible, we want them to start inculcating correct and healthy eating habits. Once they are able to do this, they can go to their communities, friends and families and advocate that things are done properly, make healthy choices, eat foods that are more of vegetable, do a lot of exercise, reduce alcohol consumption, and don’t smoke and so on. The basic message we pass here is that as change agents, they can make a lot of changes in their communities and the society at large.”