How you helped Sierra Leone’s people face the fear of Ebola
Even though new cases have declined and are now limited to sporadic flare ups, the battle isn’t over. Grave risk to life is still posed by the strain the outbreak has placed on Sierra Leone’s fragile health systems.
VSO has been working in Sierra Leone since 1961 and before the Ebola outbreak we had 14 volunteer nurses working in centres for basic and emergency care of expectant mothers and newborns. But as the pandemic began to unfold, we and our partners in the Ministry of Health and Sanitation had little choice but to redirect resources towards emergency response and humanitarian assistance.
Thanks to our strong partnership with the ministry, and an emergency appeal that to date has raised over £200,000, we have been able to continue vital work throughout the outbreak, helping as many mothers-to-be as possible to have their babies safely in the midst of the crisis.
Fighting fear of health centres
Wherever Ebola spread as it tightened its grip on the country through 2014, fear followed. The result was extremely worrying. Concerned that attending a heath facility would increase the risks of contracting Ebola, many women stopped going. Without this access to pregnancy check-ups, immunization and other maternal and child health services - thousands of women and unborn children were in danger.
We followed a two-pronged approach, targeting both health staff and patients. More than 200 health workers at clinics where attendance was in sharp decline were trained both in recognising Ebola symptoms, and in reassuring communities about safety from infection in health facilities. As a result we recorded a 10% increase in women having their babies at the health facilities we supported and a 12% boost in women accessing three or more pregnancy check-ups.
Spreading life-saving information
Our networks have been highly effective in improving the sharing of essential health information – the most urgent work in trying to stop the spread of Ebola. We worked with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation to train mobilisation committees across every district in Sierra Leone that were tasked with raising awareness about Ebola symptoms and what to do when they arise. Prioritising pregnant women, lactating mothers and children under the age of 5, these networks managed to reach more than 150,000 people.
After training, community volunteers, including youth volunteer alumni from our International Citizen Service programme, visited over 2,300 quarantined homes to provide information on safe burials and how to prevent contagion. We also supported efforts to produce radio health information jingles targeted at rural, hard-to-reach areas as well as the printing and distribution of public information brochures.
Supporting health workers on the front line
Working long hours, seeing more patients than can be saved arrive at your door, regularly watching your own colleagues die before your very eyes: being a health worker throughout the Ebola pandemic has often been incredibly traumatic.
With the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine we designed a full range of psycho-social and counselling sessions for health workers, to provide support, reduce stress and enhance motivation to remain committed to serving humanity while keeping personal safety a priority. Thirty-six health managers were empowered to deliver the counselling to health workers.
What happens next?
Ebola is yet to be totally eradicated from Sierra Leone. We are committed to supporting its people to access better quality healthcare and this includes learning lessons from the Ebola outbreak to help build a more resilient and effective health system in the future. Research we’ve been able to complete with our partners throughout this period will inform government strategies to ensure that future health crises pose the smallest possible risk to Sierra Leone’s mothers, and their chances of giving birth safely to the healthy, happy children who are the country’s future.
Make a donation to support our work in West Africa
VSO is also appealing for funds for our work in the region. Every gift will make a big difference. You can make a donation online now or by calling us on +44 (0)20 8780 7500.
Every penny raised will go to preventing the further spread of this disease as well as supporting the families and the communities affected.