Community health volunteers bring health services to hard to reach communities

Published: 15 May 2014 20:03 CET

Only 57 per cent of the population in Sierra Leone has access to safe drinking water sources. As a result, waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea, hepatitis A, cholera and typhoid are widespread. Infant and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the world. Malnutrition, anaemia, neonatal infection, diarrhoeal diseases, pneumonia and malaria are all common causes of death among infants.

The Sierra Leone Red Cross Society has been implementing community-based health programmes for over two decades. It uses the community-based health and first aid approach to train its community health volunteers on hygiene, first aid, disease prevention and nutritional needs.

The programme, supported by the British Red Cross, can call on a network of 4,756 volunteers, working in 133 communities across the country, the National Society promotes health and enables hard to reach communities to access basic health services.

In Sierra Leone, women are responsible for the health and well-being of their families. Knowing how to prevent disease, recognize symptoms and treat common illnesses mean be the difference between life and death. Mothers’ clubs, present in all 13 branches across the country, are one of the channels used to offer free support on reproductive, maternal, newborn and adolescent health, and are popular across the country.

Fathers’ clubs also encourage men to play their part in community health care, and they are also encouraged to accompany their wives to health clinics and hospital visits during pregnancy and after the birth of their children.

“Most of the things that affect us in Sierra Leone can be prevented with knowledge and awareness. We need to improve access to safe drinking water and keep on increasing people’s knowledge on how to prevent different communicable diseases,” says Olive, health services field manager, Sierra Leone Red Cross Society.

With literacy rates averaging only 43 per cent among the population, the community health volunteers use interactive methods such as pictorial illustrations, drama, songs, mobile cinema, quiz competitions and football to spread knowledge.

Kadiematu Adieu’s Mogbowama village, situated in the middle of the bush in the south of Sierra Leone is among the 599 towns and villages being reached by the National Society. “It is not easy to get to the nearest health facilities, and even if we make it there, there is a shortage of drugs and they can’t always help,” says Kadiematu. The Sierra Leone Red Cross Society has been strengthening knowledge and understanding of the community on personal and environmental hygiene and sanitation. Adieu adds: “Before, we didn’t have toilet facilities, but now we have a latrine block. We’ve also been taught about the importance of washing our hands. And people no longer spread their clothes on the ground to dry – we’ve learned how important it is to use clothes lines to keep clean and healthy.”

Learn more

Join us in the conversation on 19 May, 6-8pm,  as the discussion on the community health workforce in fragile states gains momentum at the side event of the 67th World Health Assembly. Follow the hashtags #FragileStates and #WHA67.

Community health volunteers’ connections to the community and understanding of the context ideally places them as key resources in developing locally appropriate responses to health issues, encouraging community engagement and promoting sustainability towards reaching  universal health coverage.

Read more about the community health programme in Sierra Leone