Strengthening Sierra Leone Health Systems: Applying Lessons from the 2014 Ebola Outbreak to Future Emergencies

This guest post was written by Laurentiu Stan (laurentiu_stan@jsi.com), MD,MPH, MBA, Chief of Party, Advancing Partners and Communities (APC) Project, Sierra Leone, JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc. John Snow, Inc., a member of Global Health Council (GHC), and the nonprofit JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc., are public health management consulting and research organizations dedicated to improving the health of individuals and communities in the US and around the globe.

Zainab Jalloh, holding her one-year-old daughter Khadijatu, at the Gbanti Community Health Post (CHP) on April 3, 2017 in Bombali District, Sierra Leone.

I’ve lived in Sierra Leone for almost two years, working to help this country’s long-battered health system recover from the Ebola outbreak that took the lives of more than 200 health professionals. Now the country has been affected by an epic landslide. Despite these tremendous setbacks, health systems and health indicators are improving.

Even before the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak, Sierra Leone had the world’s highest maternal mortality ratio: 1630 of 100,000 live births (UNICEF, 2010). By 2015, the ratio had dropped to 1360, but Sierra Leone still held the top spot in this dismal measurement. Ebola compounded the problem because about 1 in every 4 women stopped coming to clinics for prenatal care and delivery. In fact, although almost 4,000 Sierra Leoneans died due to the EVD outbreak (between May 2014 and January 2016), during that same period more than 4,500 women died in childbirth.

The Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MOHS) focused its post-Ebola health recovery priorities on strengthening the health system’s capacity to safely detect and prevent diseases and respond to future epidemics in cooperation with its neighbors. It also recognized the need to contribute to global health security to improve health and economic opportunities.

A health facility water pump before APC revitalization. Photo courtesy/ JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc.

Between September 2015 and August 2017, under the umbrella of the USAID-funded and JSI-managed Advancing Partners & Communities (APC) project, I have helped implement a number of programs that are contributing to MOHS recovery objectives by improving primary care service delivery in the communities hardest hit by Ebola. APC has revitalized 305 primary care facilities, ensuring access to basic health services—with a focus on improving quality of maternal health services—for almost 2 million Sierra Leoneans, including the 3,400 registered Ebola-survivors.

A health facility water pump after APC revitalization. Photo courtesy/ JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc.

APC’s community health facility upgrades dramatically improved water and sanitation standards, installed solar power systems, provided basic equipment, and trained more than 900 health professionals and 1,500 community health workers (CHWs) on reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health and as—importantly, given how Ebola was spread—infection prevention and control practices. Today, more than 2 million Sierra Leoneans in five districts have access to revitalized primary care and community health services in these primary care units and their catchment villages.
We know that another epidemic or emergency could come at any time, and while the Sierra Leone health system is going through significant transformations as part of the five-year recovery plan, it is better equipped now to address it.

The tragic August 14 landslide was just such an emergency—and the new systems that the U.S. government has invested in are working. The emergency coordination and resource mobilization mechanisms put in place with CDC support reacted well and fast. Mental health nurses who were trained to support Ebola survivors are providing psychosocial support to the several-thousand people who lost homes and relatives: more than 1,000 people died in the landslide. The CHWs recently trained by APC have undergone a 15-day social mobilization exercise to identify and convey messages on the prevention of cholera and other waterborne diseases to at-risk populations. With USAID and DfID support, JSI is assisting the MOHS relief efforts with emergency delivery of essential pharmaceutical and medical consumables to one area hospital and six primary care units.

This most recent tragedy has demonstrated that the country’s service delivery system has improved. One year after the outbreak ended, the MOHS data showed about a 10% positive change in uptake of facility deliveries and outpatient services in the four districts where 70% of Ebola survivors live. Now that health facilities have been revitalized, and health care workers are providing higher-quality services, we are seeing more and more Sierra Leoneans returning to their local health facilities.

There is still much to be done, of course. But Sierra Leone is on its way to a health system that meets the needs of its people—and, given the toll that Ebola took, is ready to confront the next infectious disease—be it Ebola or some other virus—with stronger, better prepared health services. And that helps us all.