Special Care Baby Units save the lives of premature and sick newborns in Sierra Leone

Making strides to help premature babies survive and thrive

Issa Davies
A doctor and nurse attend to a premature baby at a hospital in Kailahun, Sierra Leone
22 October 2021

Musu Silverlee, a young lactating mother from Borborgahun village in Kailahun District, eastern Sierra Leone, caressed her one-week-old baby, Ansumana, as she breastfed it inside the Special Care Baby Unit at the Kailahun Government Hospital.

Musu, who was still pregnant a week ago, developed complications due to obstructed labour and had difficulty in giving birth at the Community Health Centre in her village. She was therefore rushed in an ambulance to the Kailahun Government Hospital, which is about 30 kilometres away, where she had to undergo a cesarean section operation to help her to deliver a beautiful baby boy. The baby was however unable to breath and cry easily at the time of birth, necessitating urgent attention to save his life.

After initial stabilization in the operating theatre, baby Ansumana was taken to the Special Care Baby Unit, a special wing that was established at the hospital to manage and care for premature and sick babies.

“My baby was delivered through caesarian section surgery and during that period I was in a state of unconsciousness and never knew whether my baby was dead or alive,” Musu narrated. “I asked the whereabouts of my baby after regaining consciousness and was brought to this part of the hospital where weak and sick babies are normally admitted and treated.”

Sierra Leone has one of the worst indicators of neonatal mortality rates in the world with 31 babies dying out of every 1,000 live births according to the 2019 Demographic Health Survey. 

A mother breastfeeds her baby inside a hospital in Kailahun, Sierra Leone.
Musu breastfeeds baby Ansumana in the Special Care Baby Unit at the Kailahun Government Hospital

With funds from China Aid, UNICEF established this Special Care Baby Unit at the Kailahun Government Hospital and another at the Jui China-Sierra Leone Friendship Hospital in Freetown to save the lives of hundreds of premature and sick babies, and those suffering from similar complications like baby Ansumana.

“A baby suffering from birth asphyxia [difficulty in breathing at birth] was born to a mother who had obstructed labour in her community clinic who was referred to us for further attention,” said Dr. Adetola Hammed Hassan, Consultant Pediatrician at the Special Care Baby Unit of the Kailahun Government Hospital through funding from China Aid. “We immediately tried to stabilize the baby by supporting its breathing with oxygen and administering antibiotics and fluids.  In the next four days, both baby and mother will be able to go home, healthy and strong.”

When Musu was discharged from the surgery and reunited with her baby at the Special Care Baby Unit, she was beaming with smiles and could not hold back her tears of joy.

“I am happy to see my baby alive at this place with the doctor and nurses actively giving attention to him!” she exclaimed as she looked straight into the eyes of baby Ansumana, who was gently sucking milk from her breast.

“Since the establishment of this Special Care Baby Unit in September 2020, 726 babies have been admitted with 94 per cent survival rate and this is a huge success,” said Yuki Suehiro, Chief of Health and Nutrition at UNICEF. “The aim is to have at least one Special Care Baby Unit established in every district in the country, if we can secure the necessary funds, so that neonatal mortality rates would be drastically reduced in the country.”

“Without this Special Care Baby Unit in this hospital, I would have lost my baby!” Musu said, “I want to say a big thank you to the doctors, nurses, China Aid and UNICEF for giving lives back to our babies, especially those of us who live in remote and hard-to-reach areas of the country where these facilities are not readily available.”