(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Emergency wheelbarrows replace missing doctors

Charlotte resident Aminata Conteh reenacts how she was transported to a nearby village health centre when she had pregnancy complications
Kelvin Lewis/IRIN

The recently-built health centre in the Sierra Leonean village of Charlotte was shuttered. Inside were lamps without bulbs, infant scales that had not weighed any babies, an unused baby cot, boxes of surgical plaster, unopened bottles of formaldehyde, and rows of beds without mattresses. Two apartments next door intended for health centre staff remained unoccupied.



Since the health centre - on the outskirts of the capital Freetown - was opened in June 2007 by then Health Minister Abattor Thomas, no patients have been treated. At the opening ceremony, the minister said solar-powered lights, running water and at least one doctor would soon arrive.



Months later, the then-ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) was defeated in both legislative and presidential elections. With a different health minister in place, the clinic remained unopened. “Those promises went out the window,” said village leader Mody Conteh. “Now the centre sits there and sticks out like a bandaged thumb.”



Residents told IRIN the most recent medical intervention in their village was a temporary voluntary clinic operated by visiting Cuban doctors in April 2008 who treated dozens, and distributed free antibiotics and anti-worm medication. But once the medicines were distributed, the doctors left, along with their mobile clinic.



Emergency wheelbarrow



Charlotte resident Aminata Conteh told IRIN she was pregnant in January 2008.



When she went into labour her pains persisted and the local traditional birth attendant was unable to treat her problem. With no other transportation, neighbours placed her in a wheelbarrow and pushed her 9km to the closest health centre in the neighbouring village of Regent.



She lost the baby.



"This is what happens to most of our sick people. Especially those who fall severely sick in the night - look at the road", said village leader Conteh, pointing at a dusty rocky dirt path, "How can you carry someone in the middle of the night along this road?"



Villagers told IRIN for medical emergencies they travel by foot to the outskirts of Regent before continuing by car to the village health centre.



Sierra Leone has the world’s highest recorded maternal mortality rate and consistently falls at the bottom of a UN ranking of living conditions in 179 rated countries.  The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that in 2005, for every 100,000 births, 2,100 women died.



The 11-year brutal civil conflict that officially ended in 2002 displaced at least two million and killed and mutilated unknown numbers. As of 2004, the government reported only 168 doctors, about 2,500 nurses and midwives, and some 550 traditional or community healers remaining to serve more than five million people.



WHO recommends at least one doctor per 10,000 residents.



Using the government’s 2006 population count of 5.7 million, and factoring in health staffing changes, the country has only one-third of the doctors needed to ensure everyone can access basic health services.



Charlotte’s residents said they are eager for anyone to staff the centre, even just to record births and deaths so there are records the village existed.



kl/pt/aj

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