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September 15, 2011

Bangura: "Developing countries are helping us out"

  Minster Haja Zainab Bangura


Haja Zainab Bangura, Sierra Leone's Health and Sanitation Minister, is scheduled to fly today to Havana. It’s part of her unusual globe-trotting efforts to help bring more doctors and nurses to her country as quickly as she can.

Her ports of call are not what you’d expect:


South Africa.


Even North Sudan.

“This is truly South-South cooperation,” Bangura said in an interview at a Washington-area hotel.  “Developing countries are helping us out.”

South Africa has given Sierra Leone $3 million to pay for 32 Cuban doctor specialists to work in the West African country. Nigeria has sent 50 doctors, nurses, and midwives. Sudan is thinking about sending doctors. Kuwait contributed $15 million to help upgrade three hospitals.

While UK’s Department for International Development, UN organizations such as UNICEF, the World Bank, and, to a lesser degree, the US Agency for International Development, all remain the country’s major donors, developing countries are starting to give substantial sums to Sierra Leone.

“We have a huge problem with our shortage of skilled health workers,” Bangura said. “These countries are willing to help us out."

Nearly a year and a half ago, Sierra Leone started its ambitious free health care initiative for pregnant women, mothers who are breast feeding, and children under the age of five. The new program has increased some hospital services by three-fold, including malaria drugs for children, showing that the most basic hurdle in health care was that people were too poor to access services.

But free health care also has badly strained the country’s health care system, most notably exposing the country’s lack of specialist physicians. The country of 6 million people has six gynecologists, for instance, and only two pediatricians working for the government.

Bangura arrived in New York City last week. She and Sierra Leone’s First Lady, Sia Nyama Koroma, attended a two-day high-level meeting at the UN Headquarters. The meeting, sponsored by the UNFPA, was held to highlight the importance of reproductive health commodity supply security including contraceptives and medicines for safe maternal health and childbirth.

After her Cuba trip, the health minister will return to New York this weekend and attend next week’s meeting on non-communicable diseases.

For Bangura, the meetings will be important. But securing the doctors in Havana is even more important. “We need to get them to Sierra Leone – fast,” she said. “We need them by the end of the year at least. We have these huge shortages of doctors, so we don’t have time to waste.”