Sierra Leone: Squandering the gains made in the health sector

By Gbenya Julius Miatta Kargbo  Even when we were bankrolled and aided by donors at the end of the eleven years civil conflict, yet the situation remained the same – with continuous deaths of children under five, pregnant women and lactating mothers, which had always placed Sierra Leone at the bottom rung of the United Nations Human Development Index, not until when God’s sent President Dr Ernest Bai Koroma came and salvaged the plight of this vulnerable group of Sierra Leoneans.

With the unveiling of the free health care initiative barely four years ago by President Koroma the country’s entire health care service delivery story has changed, which is actually remarkable and geared towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The high premium placed on the health sector by government, particularly the free health care initiative demonstrates the political will and level of commitment towards having a healthy nation as the saying goes; “health is wealth”. Maternal and child mortality has drastically reduced, with rapid improvement in maternal and child health. The ministry is also combating malaria and HIV/AIDS amongst other killer diseases. Government through the MoHS is simultaneously busy raising awareness on family planning as well as teenage pregnancy.

However what is baffling everybody is the unacceptable unfolding of events in the ministry, amidst efforts by government to address the health angle of the country’s social problems. These unpatriotic attitudes of health workers setting ablaze stores and hospitals in the country is becoming very much unbearable to the extent that even some of us who have been great respecters and admirers of ministers who had served, and are serving the ministry, begin to doubt, and are now asking what is happening to our health sector.

President Koroma at the official handing over of maternity wards in Bo and Kenema, cautioned health workers to do away with their old habits which led to the burning of sections of the Kenema government hospital few years ago. Sadly, none of them could heed the President’s advice, not even the Minister of Health and Sanitation put that piece of advice into practice.

Instead, the fire travelled on this occasion from Kenema through National Power Authority and razed the building of the central medical stores destroying drugs meant for the free health care, though the minister denied, claiming the drugs were ‘expired’. Yes madam minister, we heard you loud and clear that we had ‘expired’ drugs before. But the question people are asking is why the faulty NPA pole and cables had not been fixed before now and why is it only now Miss Miatta Kargbo is informing the public about expired drugs? We may also want to know if the ‘expired’ drugs were shipped in or got expired in the store. We deserve a better explanation on the matter for our taxes have been invested so much on the health sector.

Handing over maternity complexes in Bo and Kenema jointly built and equipped by government  with support from development partners including United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), African Development Bank (ADB) and host of others by way of adequately responding to health care service delivery issues countrywide, President Koroma declared  that the facilities in Bo and Kenema will soon be replicated in other parts of the country down to chiefdom level, while observing that the free health care initiative is rapidly yielding results. But what assurance can the minister and her team of health workers give to government and the people that these facilities and drugs will not be gutted down by another mysterious fire again? A reason why President Koroma appealed to residents of Bo and Kenema to help government capture the devil that always sparks fire on health care facilities and drugs.

He declared that the free health policy is being implemented to save lives as there were so many incidents of deaths amongst pregnant women, lactating mothers and under-five children, which has been drastically reduced, and clearly implies that Sierra Leone is indeed on track amidst emerging challenges.

President Koroma also challenged civil society organizations, the security sector, district and city council administrators of both regions to share collective responsibility in the handling and management of facilities meant for the implementation of the free health care policy as well as for the entire sector. He assured all of government’s continuous support to improve the health sector through capacity building right across the board. The President further encouraged workers to serve as watchdogs for health care facilities being erected and equipped everywhere in the country. By this, we can help government achieve its goals provided the enemies of progress (who stop at nothing to enrich themselves by stealing drugs meant for women and children) are out of the way.

According to the Demographic and Health Survey 2013 report put out by Statistics Sierra Leone, a valuable tool to assess the progress Sierra Leone has made from 2007 to date, the health sector stands as key to the achievement of the Agenda for Prosperity, judging from glaring health indicators from fertility trends, child and maternal health, HIV/AIDS and family planning areas where government has scored impressive grades so far.

Also, part of efforts by government to further improve health service delivery backed by the enabling working environment, with staff quarters being built and furnished in almost all district health management areas, are key to the improvement of the sector.

For child health, significant improvement is being made towards the protection of the lives of under-fives. According to the Demographic Health Survey mentioned above, over 1,000 children survive their first year of life whilst all women received antenatal care from well trained and qualified doctors, nurses, midwives or maternal and child health aide during pregnancy. Though it varies, by mother, women living in rural communities with little or no educational background also receive more that 95% antenatal care from health experts, whiles 90% are given tetanus toxoid injections during pregnancy to prevent their infants from neonatal tetanus which has high potential of causing the death of a child at birth.

In compliance with the guidelines of the World Health Organization all children in Sierra Leone are now being immunized with the required vaccines against tuberculosis, diphtheria, polio, malaria etc. This clearly implies that over 96% of children are now being medically taken care of through the free health care initiative, and by look of trends in the sector, it is worthy to note that Sierra Leone has made impressive moves towards achieving pillar five of the MDG. Therefore Health and Sanitation Minister, Miatta Kargbo and her staff, should be bold enough to tell the nation what went wrong at the central medical stores, so that the gains made in the sector are not squandered so soon.