Aid groups work to improve birth rate in Sierra Leone

For children in Sierra Leone, the prick of a needle causes an unpleasant sting, but that prick could also prove life saving.

"Malaria is one of the illnesses I'm struggling with for my kids," mother of three Jenaba Lamay said through a translator.

And she's worried her 22-month-old has it.

With a few drops of blood, clinicians know in a matter of minutes whether the children are in fact fighting malaria -- the leading killer in Sierra Leone. ABC7 watched as seven of eight children tested positive. They'll be sent home with medication.

"We are happy that anytime we're here, they treat our kids, they provide drugs for them, they examine them," mother of two Mosu Jalloh said through a translator.

Health care for children under five and pregnant mothers is now free. It's an investment that's expected to save lives in a country where 20 percent of young children don't survive to their fifth birthday.

Clinics like one in Koribondo show what can be accomplished when different relief organizations collaborate, and partner with the government. World Vision helps with staffing, medications and training for new mothers. Physicians from the group Doctors Without Borders direct everything from vaccinations to deliveries for women who once gave birth at home.

Midwife Lucy Vincent has seen a major change in the last two years, ever since the government issued a mandate for mothers to deliver in clinics. Traditional birth attendants from villages now accompany women in labor and work side by side with midwives.

If there are complications, Doctors Without Borders arranges transfer to the hospital by ambulance.

Dirt roads are typically what run between villages and travel on them can be difficult. It can be hard to imagine being pregnant and having to take such a route to a clinic.

And in fact, many women don't. The latest report by the United Nations Population Fund finds more than 80 percent of women in rural Sierra Leone still give birth at home.

"So in this country, it's really one in eight of women who die in their child bearing years," midwife Jude Holden said.

Holden runs the Aberdeen Women's Clinic in the capitol city of Freetown.

"We have 100 deliveries every month here, and we've had 1,300 since we've opened and we've had two maternal deaths," Holden said.

Replicating that success rate across the country is a long way off, but it starts with training midwifes and best practices.

"We know if you put a baby actually straight onto a mother, the heat from the mothers body, the heart rate and the breathing by the mother settles the baby down and we know and have evidenced from working here that that actually, the chances of the baby surviving are increased if we do good kangaroo nursing," Holden said.

Training new mothers is also critical. Back at the clinic in Koribondo, World Vision teaches moms about the importance of breast milk only for six months -- no food, and especially no water.

Diarrhea is the second leading cause of death among children, but there is hope, the clinics are crowded with concerned mothers seeking treatment and Lucy Vincent is watching children she delivered eight years ago grow up.

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