A British Member of Parliament was sickened after meandering along dirty shacks and tracks to see minuscule clinics struggling to cope with big influx of patients at Sierra Leone’s worst slums in Freetown.
The clinic cramped in story buildings with little ventilation, babies screaming and clinging to their mothers as medical staff check their vital health statistics, locals have come to recognize the health centre as a life- saving place.
Foreign aid schemes have recently enabled the country to provide free health care for children under five, pregnant women and new mothers, thereby making huge differences in the health care delivery systems.
Sierra Leone has had a dreadful record on maternal health, the mortality ratio at 857 per 100,000 live births and child mortality rate at 140 per 1,000 live births.
One in eight mothers die during child birth and one in five children also die before the ages of five which was largely blamed on financial barriers.
The country is still far from the 600 per 100,000 and 95 per 1000 targets for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.
Harriet Herman, a British MP who doubles as a shadow Secretary of State for International Development and also Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in UK, is in the country to see the impact of the Free Health Care Initiative in a bid to restore donor confidence for continued funding towards the initiative and to also strengthen health workers with improved facilities.
In one of the health centers visited at Mabella, drugs and other medical equipment were shelved in dusty cabins raveled in a cramped room not more than a bedroom and parlour, as patients are packed like sardines on benches all striving to get free treatment.
Adama Gondor, Community Health Officer (CHO) at the Mabella Health Centre, while on a conducted tour with the British MP and staff of Save the Children UK, a British NGO that facilitated the visit, said “we encourage women to come and have check-ups during pregnancy.”
“We also offer them bed-nets to protect against mosquitoes, carry out immunizations and so on and advising them that exclusive breast feeding can protect their infants from a range of diseases,” she said.
CHO Gondor said “things are slowly changing in Sierra Leone particularly in the slums” and though progress is being made, “we still face shortage of malaria drugs and poor facilities in the delivery room”, so “we improvise just to provide much needed services and critical cases are referred.”
The British MP was also taken on an immunization outreach mission within the Mabella community and its surroundings, which meant going through awkward alleys amidst clustered make-shift structures in a very nasty environment.
Children and their mothers dressed in rags amidst pigs and piles of rubbish at sprawling housing sites literally not conducive for human living.
However majority of the slum inhabitants left the towns and villages during the war but could not go back.
Some of the healthy children are lined up by nurses dressed in pink uniforms to receive vaccinations which provide protection against yellow fever, diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis B, polio and severe forms of pneumococcal diseases such as meningitis and bacteraemia.
In Sierra Leone, diarrhoea accounts for about one in five infant deaths according to UNICEF report.
The British MP, Harriet Herman, told this reporter that she was impressed with the enthusiasm of health workers and the significant progress made in the health sector.
Margret Tucker, Assistant Health Programme Manager for Save the Children UK in Sierra Leone, said “we are supporting health centers with logistics and also building the capacity of the community members on hygiene promotion and health awareness.
During the vaccination outreach mission, most of the lactating mothers said they have given birth to five children, two of whom have died, however some children were also identified to have missed their scheduled vaccinations said one of the nurses.
“We have to coax them before they visit the health centre stating “we are planning to intensify our sensitization campaign to complement our outreach programs”.
At Susan’s Bay, one of the most feared slums is without a clinic but inhabitants are forced to do with a facility provided by a trained nurse until the Save the Children proposed that clinic construction is completed within the next five months.
Binta Bah, aged 22 started benefiting from the Free Health Care since she was seven months pregnant and boastfully stated that “the Free Health Care has contributed greatly in the survival of her first son, Jess.
“I benefited a lot from the Free Health Care and will continue to visit the health centre in case of any ailment.”
The delegation also visited Kroo Bay to see the impact of the Free Health Care and the role of Traditional Birth Attendants
Through the global health alliance GAVI, Herman said the British Government has increased funding for countries seeking foreign aid to implement a new rotavirus vaccine which would protect against the most severe form of the illness.
By Saidu Bah