Sierra Leone: improving access to healthcare for women and children

On the 27th of April 2010, the Sierra Leone government will start implementing a policy of  free healthcare for pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and children under five. MSF welcomes the government’s commitment to the new policy and hopes that this will improve the access to healthcare for these vulnerable groups.

“We are extremely happy that the Sierra Leone government has decided to stop asking pregnant women and children to pay for health care” said Stuart ZIMBLE, MSF’s Head of Mission in Sierra Leone. “In a country facing such enormous health issues, the increased use of health services must be a priority objective.”

Sierra Leone is still facing extreme poverty and has one of the worst health records in the world. One in four children die before the age of five, and one in eight women risk dying from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. More than half of the population survives on less than one dollar a day.

MSF has been working in Sierra Leone since 1986. In the town of Bo, MSF is running a hospital providing maternal- and child healthcare. The hospital has an intensive therapeutic feeding centre for malnourished children, a paediatric ward, and a maternity ward with an operating theatre focused on complicated pregnancies. MSF also provides support to the Ministry of Health in five health centres and thirty rural health posts in the area.

MSF’s experience in Sierra Leone and other poor countries has shown that patient fees act as a major barrier to accessing life-saving healthcare. The number of children diagnosed and treated for malaria increased tenfold after MSF made healthcare free of charge - even when the fees previously requested were very low.

“Although free care might not resolve all the problems that limit the access to health care for these vulnerable groups, it will remove one significant barrier” said Zimble.

He added that the implementation of free care for vulnerable groups is a challenging task: “The policy can only become a reality if the necessary drugs, equipment and health workers are consistently available even in the most remote health structures. Meeting this challenge will require continuous efforts in the coming months and years.“

Zimble concluded: “MSF has witnessed the efforts made by the Sierra Leone authorities in making the implementation a success. We also hope that they will receive appropriate and continued support from aid partners so that the policy will translate into better access to health care for the people who need it the most.”

Sierra Leone