A health worker treats a child with ebola in Sierra Leone. Photo: Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images
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Warnings over collapse of health system in the wake of ebola in Sierra Leone

Prior to the outbreak there were signs of progress in the country’s public health operation, which are now under threat.

Sierra Leone’s health system is showing worrying signs of collapse in the face of ebola, as the epidemic puts exceptional pressure on already weak systems in West Africa. This is a hugely frustrating and sad situation as the country had started to make progress in public health in the years prior to the outbreak. Despite the progress, however, the health system was not strong enough to absorb a shock on this scale and rebuilding infrastructure and trust will require major investment in the post-ebola period.

Taking Sierra Leone as an example, bearing in mind that the health system performance in Guinea Conakry and Liberia are somewhat comparable to their neighbouring country, we can see how the impact has been felt across all aspects of health.

In 2013, for the first time since the end of the war, Sierra Leone succeeded in eliminating the deficit of its country balance sheet, leaving no doubt that the country was in a period of recovery for the first time since the end of the war in 2002. Nevertheless, in 2014, Sierra Leone was still ranked amongst the poorest countries in the world. In 2013 the per capita expenditure on health was a mere $7.60, far short of the recommended $54. It is anticipated that the short-term impact of the ebola outbreak will affect the economy in Sierra Leone by a reduction in growth of GDP from 11.3 per cent to 8 per cent, which may mean that the government’s contribution to health activities outside of ebola will reduce in real terms. As campaigners mark the first-ever Universal Health Coverage Day on 12 December, this serves as a serious blow to the chances of bringing quality healthcare to all as a basic human right.

Signs of progress in public health prior to the ebola outbreak included the fact that between the periods assessed in the 2008 and 2013 Demographic and Health Surveys, the proportion of births taking place in a health facility has doubled (from 24.6 per cent to 54.4 per cent) and the proportion of women receiving a postnatal check-up within two days of delivery increased to more than two thirds (from 58.0 per cent to 72.7 per cent).

Despite these achievements, Sierra Leone still faces one of, if not the highest level of maternal and child mortality in the world.  The maternal mortality ratio shows no sign of improvement at 1,165 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births; the under-five mortality rate is 156 deaths per 1,000 live births; and the neonatal mortality rate is 39 deaths per 1,000 live births, which remain unchanged since 2008. The increases in health service uptake between 2008 and 2013 have not resulted in improvements in health outcome indicators, reflecting issues related to poor quality of health services.

Health workers are overstretched with an ever-growing burden of ebola cases, and the ebola-related fatalities of 101 of the 128 health workers infected impacts not only the workforce numbers but also morale, further reducing capacity of the health system to provide adequate care.

Facilities are under-equipped with essential infrastructure and equipment to provide even basic essential health services. Based on the Ministry of Health and Sanitation’s recent Facility Improvement Team (FIT) assessment, the pressure of ebola on the healthcare system is resulting in the closure of health facilities and a drop in those that are equipped to provide emergency obstetric and neonatal care.  Further, Government data shows that since the ebola outbreak, fewer people are attending public health facilities for essential health services; between May and July 2014, the proportion of women attending for their first antenatal care visit dropped by 17 per cent; for their first postnatal visit, fell by 18 per cent; and for a delivery, fell by 16 per cent. In terms of child health, over the same period, the proportion of children who received oral rehydration solution and zinc treatment for diarrhoea within the first 24 hours fell by 33 per cent and those receiving full immunisations dropped by 12 per cent.

The trust in health services has been further eroded by inadequate communication with, and involvement of, community members in the first few months of the outbreak. Serious misconceptions about ebola persist; a third of survey respondents in a survey believed that ebola was airborne and one out of every five people believed that ebola could be cured by traditional healers. With a case fatality rate estimated to be at least 70 per cent, health facilities are perceived as places where one catches the disease and dies.  Further, anecdotal reports appear regularly in the media about pregnant women being triaged out of care due the level of ebola transmission risk they are perceived to present to health workers.

The collapse of the health system demonstrates Sierra Leone’s poor resilience to absorb shocks. The focus of everyone is rightly on bringing the ebola epidemic under control, but at what cost? The impact of the drop in service utilisation on morbidity and mortality from other preventable illnesses is yet to be seen. An estimated 382,000 women will become pregnant over the next 12 months in Sierra Leone. Based on the pre-ebola levels of care without any consideration of the health system collapse, 2,400 women per year die due to preventable conditions related to pregnancy and childbirth. Malaria accounts for a quarter of all deaths in the country, and is the leading cause of death among under 5s. Measles outbreak is another risk for all three countries, which will be difficulty to contain if current resources do not broaden their focus to redress the gap in providing basic essential health services.

Reconstructing the health system in the post-ebola period will require significant investments in every aspect of the health system. Additional human resources for health will be needed not only to compensate the deaths of health professionals during the epidemic but also to fill the pre-existing gaps to be able to deliver the quality of services needed to improve health outcomes, and restore trust in the health system. In the meantime, authorities including the World Health Organisation, donors and implementing agencies must address the routine health needs of people in these affected countries, particularly those conditions that require simple interventions to prevent death and morbidity in areas such as malaria, vaccine-preventable diseases and the needs of pregnant women and their newborns.

Karl Blanchet is Lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the Public Health in Humanitarian Crises Group. Sara Nam is a Technical Specialist in Reproductive and Sexual Health with Options Consultancy Services Ltd.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle