Sierra Leone: Keeping children alive

Thousands of children continue to die from preventable diseases in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone is still off-track to reach the target set by Millennium Development Goal 4 to reduce the number of under-five child deaths by two thirds by 2015 [EPA]

In the outskirts of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown stands Susan’s Bay, a massive slum overlooking the ocean. More than 40,000 people live in this place and until recently, the only health facility they could visit was one based in a tiny room at Alice Tamba’s house where she provided skeletal services.

Then things changed last March when Save the Children set up a community health centre, the first in four centuries of history in this area. Tamba – who runs this centre – told me how they can now help more malnourished children, providing simple life-saving oral rehydration solutions and food supplements, in addition to treating many pregnant women who avoided going to hospital.

Susan’s Bay reflects the changes taking place in the rest of the country where, until just two years ago, young mothers and infants were more likely to die than almost anywhere else in the world. Emerging from conflict, Sierra Leone was a grim place to be a mum, especially a mum with a young child. United Nations and World Health Organisation figures were stark: Out of every 1,000 babies born, almost 200 would die before reaching the age of five. 

Thanks to the selfless example of healthcare workers such as Tamba, as well as government-led health and nutrition initiatives, the rate of maternal and infant deaths is steadily falling. Key to this transformation was the government’s announcement in September 2009 that all health user fees would be removed for pregnant and lactating women and children under the age of five.

The Free Health Care Initiative (FHCI) was launched in April 2010, which aimed to give around 460,000 women and one million children a much better chance of having a longer and happier life.

In the first year alone, there was a 214 per cent increase in the number of children attending outpatient units. More women who needed urgent care began attending facilities and the number of women dying from pregnancy complications at facilities was reduced by an amazing 61 per cent. This initiative has had an incredible effect on the awful health indicators of just a few years ago.

Tamba, like thousands of health workers across the country, has come out to support the implementation of the Free Healthcare Initiative, working round the clock to meet the increased demand, helping turn this into a success story. At Susan’s Bay, women and children now have access to the Free Healthcare Initiative at her clinic. This is being replicated elsewhere, ensuring that the healthcare dream is kept alive and well in Sierra Leone.

But much more needs to be done. Sierra Leone is still off-track to reach the target set by Millennium Development Goal 4 to reduce the number of under-five child deaths by two thirds by 2015. And thousands of children continue dying from preventable diseases, many of them caused by malnutrition.

This is the reason why on October 16, coinciding with World Food Day, over 300 school children in Sierra Leone will join 20,000 children across 42 countries in Save the Children’s Race for Survival, a global relay race meant to raise awareness on the issue of child malnutrition and mortality. In each country, children will call on world leaders to get serious about tackling the number of under-five child deaths to bring it down by eight million by 2015.

In Sierra Leone, the next three years will be crucial to consolidate the Free Healthcare Initiative and ensure that no more children under the age of five die from preventable causes. Two years on from the launch of Free Healthcare Initiative, Sierra Leone must sustain progress and the government and its partners must ensure that the progress made is sustained and accelerated so that we can reach our common goals.

Alexandra Readhead is the Global Campaigns Manager, Save the Children, Sierra Leone.