Last week I took Harriet Harman MP out to visit Save the Children UK’s health programmes in Sierra Leone. Harriet is probably best known in the UK as the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. In Sierra Leone, however, her greatest claim to fame is as MP for Camberwell and Peckham — Peckham boasts a larger Sierra Leonean diaspora than anywhere else in the UK.
Healthcare in Freetown
We spent most our time in the slums of Freetown — taking in Susans Bay, Kroobay and Mabella. Our visit came just over a year after the removal of health user fees in the country for pregnant and lactating women and children under 5, and everywhere we went it was clear the huge difference this is already making.
Our first stop was the community health clinic in Mabella, which was recently refurbished by Save the Children. The clinic was packed out with mothers and babies. We sat in on a few consultations, including one with a small baby who was diagnosed with malaria. The health worker explained to us that, while some of these mothers would have come to the clinic while there were user fees in place, they would have waited much longer before making the decision to seek help, making cases harder to treat successfully — while others would not have come at all.
Healthworkers making a difference
We followed some amazingly energetic community healthworkers on their rounds in Mabella, as they delivered life-saving vaccines to the children living there — more of which will now be available thanks to the announcements made at the GAVI conference on 13 June, just a couple of days before our visit.
Later, in neighbouring Susans Bay, we met a health worker who has given over a room in her own dwelling to act as a health centre for the area. We were again struck by local people’s commitment to their community when we met Mammie Gombo in Kroobay, who is a member of a Save the Children-run volunteer scheme which helps prevent and treat diarrhoea in the community — something that used to kill many children in the unsanitary conditions of the slum dwellings, but is now on the retreat.
We met a variety of health workers in different roles, all of them incredibly hard working and making a massive difference to children and mothers in the country. When we spoke with the Minister of Health, Zainab Hawa Bangura, she explained that a shortage of health workers is one of the biggest challenges her country faces; the removal of user fees has led to a huge upsurge in demand. The UK has supported the free healthcare initiative, but she is still struggling to train and retain enough healthworkers — both generalists, and specialists such as gynaecologists — to service her country’s needs.
Many of those who are trained end up working in the private sector, in other countries’ health systems or in non-medical jobs that pay better. The hike in healthworker salaries by around 200% has helped address the issue but there is still a long way to go.