Ebola – The Long Road to Recovery…

21st October 2015
As Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health prepares to implement its new post-Ebola strategy, VSO and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, release new research examining the impact of the disease on maternal health. VSO’s Country Director in Sierra Leone, Peter Nderitu, reflects on the findings.

More than a hundred people gathered at the Sierra Light Hotel in Freetown earlier this month to find out how Ebola impacted pregnant women, newborns and maternal health workers in Sierra Leone. Sadly, the research found a 30% increase in maternal deaths and a 24% increase in newborn deaths. The psychological impact of the outbreak on health workers was also damaging.

At the event, I was moved by the story of one new mother, Maria Ellen Kallon fom Dworzak, who was pregnant during the epidemic. She explained how her fear of Ebola and lack of confidence in her local health centre, kept her from accessing vital maternal and newborn health services. She believed she might contract Ebola at the health centre and was equally afraid of being diagnosed with it, so she kept away. She opted for self-medication at home. She was one of the lucky ones. Many other women, who made the same choice, died at home during childbirth or lost their babies. Despite these harrowing stories, the women’s openness to share them means communities have come a long way.

Pregnant mothers at clinic

Pregnant mothers-to-be waiting to be seen at The Binkolo ante-natal clinic. Binkolo Community Health Centre. Sierra Leone. © Georgie Scott /VSO 2011

Research has found an 18% decrease in women accessing antenatal care and a 22% decrease in accessing postnatal care. Overall, there was an 11% decrease in deliveries at health care centres. Despite the drop in numbers, health workers still had to battle with the fear of Ebola on the frontline. One nurse gave a moving account of how she found the courage to go on working in such awful circumstances and encouraged her colleagues to do the same. In spite of their fears, they were committed to helping the reduced numbers of pregnant women access maternal health services. The nurse went on to explain how she ventured out into her community to encourage other pregnant women to access vital services.

As the VSO Country Director of Sierra Leone, I have seen, first-hand, communities ravaged by this devastating disease. As I told the attendees at our report launch in Freetown, my priority now is to use this valuable research to help the Ministry of Health and Sanitation implement a national ‘Post Ebola Health, Recovery and Resilience Plan’ until 2020. As an international development organisation, VSO is drawing on lessons learnt and collaborating with the government to design a new intervention programme that will eventually transition from zero Ebola cases to Sierra Leone’s full recovery. Together, we are determined to restore basic maternal health services to as they once were, before Ebola struck.

Going forward, VSO will deploy skilled medical volunteers to provide on-the-job training and mentoring to local health workers. We need to address their psychological scars which will remain long after the disease dies out.

We will establish a postgraduate medical training programme and Regional Training Institutions in Sierra Leone for community health workers. We cannot underestimate the importance of collaborating with Teaching Universities like the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine which have a wealth of knowledge that can strengthen Sierra Leone's health systems.

In addition to supporting public awareness campaigns about Ebola, VSO will strengthen referral systems, provide health technology advice and set-up standard operating procedures for Basic and Comprehensive Obstetric Care Centres, which will improve maternal health outcomes.

Ultimately, we want to support Ebola survivors and help them integrate into their communities once more.

Although we still have a long way to go, together we can learn from these experiences, build resilience and be better equipped to fight Ebola and other infectious diseases in future.

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