Sightsavers CEO Dr Caroline Harper reports from her recent visit to Sierra Leone to see how eye care services and health workers have been coping since the Ebola virus devastated the country.
At Kenema hospital, some four hours’ drive from Freetown, there stands a monument to 34 health workers who lost their lives during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. It is beautifully kept, with flowers and photos, but is a sobering reminder of the bravery shown during those terrible times.
More than 3,500 people are known to have died from Ebola in Sierra Leone – although that is probably an underestimate. Some 4,000 people survived, but the virus has left its mark. More than half of them have eye problems, while the stigma attached to being a survivor blights lives.
Ebola took hold here, and in Guinea and Liberia, because of a weak health system. The loss of so many health workers has damaged it further, so the question is by how much, and is it recovering? I went to Sierra Leone in September 2016 to see how the country is faring now it has been declared Ebola free, and in particular to find out how Sightsavers staff and partners were coping.
I had not forgotten speaking to our Country Director, Nancy Smart, when the crisis was at its height. The palpable fear there, together with the practical difficulties associated with food shortages and increasing prices, combined to make this a very testing time. A sick child was no longer cuddled and comforted but put into a separate room while parents hoped and prayed it was a common fever. Malaria, a dreadful killer itself, was suddenly greeted with relief that it was not Ebola.
I don’t think we will ever really understand what it was like for our staff and our partners through those awful days – but I would like to honour their bravery and determination, and was really impressed by what I saw.
Sightsavers has worked in Sierra Leone for nearly 60 years. We have seen trouble before – working as we did throughout the civil war, when our then Country Director Dr Dennis Williams at times dodged bullets and hid from machete-wielding fighters. The last time I came (in 2006) the country was recovering from war and there was a sense of optimism – so the Ebola crisis was particularly cruel.
The road ahead
As such a long standing partner we have close relationships with the various Ministries. I met the Minister of Health and Sanitation and the Minister of Education, and it was clear that both are totally committed to their departments and the task they face.
Sierra Leone has a total of 90 eye health workers (to support a population of around 6.4 million people), and more than 90 per cent of them were trained with support from Sightsavers, thanks to funding from Irish Aid, the European Commission and Standard Chartered. More are currently being trained, but there will still not be nearly enough. There is ONE optometrist! A shortage of eye health workers is one of the biggest barriers holding back the health system.