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Sierra Leone boosts infant health care

President Ernest Koroma strives to improve health care through free services to young babies and pregnant mothers.

Sierra Leone is launching a new health care initiative to offer free medical care to infants up to 5 years and to pregnant mothers. Here Jebbeh Amara sits with her two children in her mud-hut in Mallay village, southern Sierra Leone, on April 8, 2008. Amara lost a baby to malaria due to lack of access to treatment. (Katrina Manson/Reuters)

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Barack Obama isn’t the only president facing opposition to a new health care plan.

Today, to mark Sierra Leone's 49th anniversary of the country's independence from Britain, President Ernest Bai Koroma is launching a free health care program for women and children, but lack of funds and a strike by medical workers at the government hospital, nearly put the initiative in jeopardy.

The free health care program is an effort to improve Sierra Leone’s maternal and infant mortality rates, which consistently rank among the worst in the world. The infant mortality rate is 89 deaths per 1,000 births and the maternal mortality rate is 857 deaths per 100,000 births, according to the nation’s 2008 Demographic Health Survey. One in seven Sierra Leonean children die before reaching age 5.

In comparison, the infant mortality rate in the United States is seven deaths per 1,000 births and the maternal mortality rate — although on the rise in recent years — is 13 deaths per 100,000 births.

To improve the health of infants and mothers here, Koroma — with the help of donor organizations, primarily the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID) — is launching the program to provide free health care to children under 5, and to pregnant and lactating mothers.

DFID is providing $70.5 million to Sierra Leone under a 10-year Reproduction and Child Health Care plan. From those funds, $22.6 million will be used to fund the free health care program over the next three years. UNICEF has already received $7 million in DFID funds to provide medicines under the program to combat illness and conditions such malaria, diarrhea, diabetes and hypertension, which often affect pregnant women.

Koroma had a tough time selling the plan, which he and the ministry hoped to unveil to much fanfare next month. Details of the plan remained under wraps until health care workers and local media began asking questions.

The trial and conviction of the minister of health and sanitation on corruption charges fueled more public nervousness about the implementation of the much-needed services. The nation’s vice president and deputy health minister are currently filling the role of the health minister until a new one is named.

Medical workers say the idea behind the health care initiative is a good one, but there is not enough equipment, supplies or even staffers available to handle the flood of women and children expected once it goes into effect.