Marie Tarawally disembarks slowly from the motorbike taxi, holding baby Yusufu. The two have travelled seven miles along the dusty roads that connect their village, Robuya, to Pate Bana Marank community health centre, in Bombali district, northern Sierra Leone.
Marie and Yusufu enter the centre. Inside, dozens of mothers and their young children are awaiting treatment for malaria, acute respiratory infection, diarrhoea, malnutrition and other childhood diseases. The neonatal clinics are free, and they are popular.
Real threat to maternal and child health
The World Health Organization declared Sierra Leone free from Ebola transmission on 7 November 2015, but the disease is still very much in people’s minds. Marie’s village was the last in the country to record a case. Pate Bana Marank was one of the worst affected communities in the country, with 119 Ebola deaths recorded.
But even during the height of the Ebola crisis, Ebola was not the biggest killer. Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of under-5 child mortality in the world, with 120 deaths per 1,000 live births, and the world’s highest maternal mortality ratio, with 1,360 per 100,000 live births.
Partners for children and women
The government and partners are looking to end preventable child and mother deaths. UNICEF has been working with such partners as the European Union, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s Department for International Development (DfID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to support the government’s Free Health Care initiative, launched by H.E. President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma in 2010. Support includes supplies of lifesaving drugs for the treatment of common childhood illnesses, and to help pregnant mothers deliver safely. Antibiotics, deworming tablets and oral rehydration salts are part of package that is available free of charge at all peripheral health facilities, as well as in hospitals, for pregnant and lactating mothers and children up to 5 years of age.
To date, the European Union alone has spent €7.6 million in support of the Free Health Care initiative in Sierra Leone.
Updated health care facilities
Through UNICEF, the European Union has supported the government to strengthen the fragile health system. In particular, the partners have upgraded the infrastructure of health facilities and boosted the number of skilled providers. Construction work on 16 new or rehabilitated health facilities has begun in several districts across the country.
During the Ebola outbreak, the European Union worked with UNICEF to sponsor training on prevention and control of infection, and improved knowledge and information on managing preventable diseases, to promote practices that are still in use today. Health workers in Pate Bana Marank continue to follow measures strengthened during the Ebola outbreak.
Vaccination campaigns – which had been suspended during the Ebola outbreak – were relaunched in April. Marie had polio as a child and makes sure Yusufu has his vaccinations at the clinic.
Great value in free services
The journey to Pate Bana Marank may have been arduous, but young mothers like Marie know the value of seeking out this treatment. At 20, she has four children, the youngest of whom is 1-month-old Yusufu, and the eldest of whom is 6 years old.
“I dropped out of school and got married off at an early age when I lost my mother, who was paying my school charges at that time,” says Marie. The medical fees were high, for her first born. But, with health services available without charge, she was able to have the care she needed without sacrificing the family’s meagre finances. She now elects to use the clinic, rather than the herbalist, to give her growing family a fair chance at life.