Sierra Leone has taken a significant stride in strengthening its public health infrastructure with the unveiling of the National Public Health Agency (NPHA). This pivotal initiative, launched on December 14, 2023, by H.E. President Brigadier Rtd Dr. Julius Maada Bio, reflects the government’s resolute commitment to enhance the well-being of its citizens and build a resilient healthcare system capable of addressing existing health challenges.
The World Health Organization (WHO) joined the chorus of congratulations, commending His Excellency President Dr. Julius Maada Bio, the Ministry of Health, and the people of Sierra Leone on this milestone. The presence of H.E the President, The First Lady, Chief Minister and several Senior Cabinet Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Ambassadors and Heads of Diplomatic Missions, Heads of UN Agencies, Health Department partners, and community representatives at the main function underscored the importance of the whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to issues of health security in the country.
Launching the NPHA, President Bio stated “for far too long, our people have faced the burden of diseases and inadequate access to healthcare. As a nation we have been rampaged by epidemics such as cholera and Ebola virus; and the recent COVID-19 pandemic further exposed the vulnerabilities of our healthcare system. The establishment of the NPHA signals our commitment to the well-being of our citizens and the advancement of our public health infrastructure.” He framed the NPHA as a bold declaration to build a resilient public health system capable of preventing, detecting, and responding to a multitude of health threats.
In a video message relayed during the launch, the WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus congratulated H.E. the President, Minister of Health, and the people of Sierra Leone for this momentous achievement. “It is a foundational institution that will strengthen the health of the nation, providing science-based leadership, expertise, and coordination for public health.” Said Dr. Tedros. He added that this work builds on the ongoing support through the WHO Regional Emergency Preparedness and Response Flagship program, and the country’s ongoing Universal Health and Preparedness Review.
Dr. Tedros further observed that in recent decades, Sierra Leone had suffered a series of serious health emergencies, including the Ebola outbreak, COVID-19 and others that strained the health system. He added that the new national public health agency builds on the lessons learned from these experiences and will build the necessary resilience to ensure better detection and response to future health emergencies. Committing WHO’s continued support to the government and people of Sierra Leone, Dr. Tedros said “WHO is proud to support Sierra Leone to protect, promote and provide health, including through providing equipment and supporting training and capacity building for the agency.”
The Minister of Health, Dr Austin Demby, thanked H.E the President, government of Sierra Leone, WHO, and other health development partners for their unwavering support. He reiterated his ministry’s commitment to work with WHO and all other development partners to ensure that the agency survives, thrives and transforms detection, prevention and response to health emergencies in the country. He empathized a collaborative approach utilizing the whole-of-government and whole-of society as well as client-centered life stages approach to universal healthcare in the country.
Representing the UN Resident Coordinator, Dr. Innocent Nuwagira, the WHO Representative, commended the high-level political will and commitment demonstrated by President Bio and his government. He emphasized the UN family’s dedication to supporting the NPHA in becoming a fit-for-purpose and accountable institution. Dr. Nuwagira stated, “With the proper support from the Government and relevant stakeholders, the NPHA can make significant contributions to emergency preparedness and response at international, national, and sub-national levels.” He underscored the importance of implementing the International Health Regulations (IHR) of 2005 and establishing multisectoral coordination mechanisms and core public health functions for effective emergency preparedness and response.
Professor Foday Sahr, Executive Director of the NPHA, highlighted the agency’s strategic role in managing public health emergencies during the ceremony. Expressing gratitude to Minister of Health Dr. Austin Demby and the Ministry of Health senior leadership, Prof Sahr emphasized the NPHA’s collaborative approach. “The NPHA will not operate in isolation, using the One Health platform, it will foster close collaboration with the ministries of health, agriculture, environment, security, water resources and sanitation and other government ministries, departments, and agencies. Development partners and civil society organizations will also be integral partners in ensuring that our efforts are aligned and effective. With this new agency in place, we’re better equipped more than ever before to address the public health challenges we face as a nation.” he stated optimistically.
The WHO has been supporting Sierra Leone to prepare for and respond to health emergencies. Other than the Ebola, Cholera, landslides, and other emergencies, WHO swiftly supported the country during the November 2021 Wellington Fuel Tanker explosion fire incident in which more than 100 people died and hundreds more had severe burns by airlifting more than 6 metric tons of medical supplies to the country within less than 48 hours. This assistance was vital to the survival of the victims. In November this year, a joint WHO Africa CDC scooping mission to the country further explored ways to strengthen the health emergency response in the country. By participating in the EPR flagship programs, Sierra Leone with benefit from training of SURGE personnel and some vehicles and equipment for rapid deployment of staff in cases of emergencies including in other countries.
In May this year, Sierra Leone became the first country in West Africa, second in Africa and 5th in the world to pilot the Universal Health Preparedness Review. With WHO technical and financial support, the national report has already been finalized and submitted to WHO. As a result, Sierra Leone has been invited to participate in the Member State – to Member State Peer review of UHPR reports and will have an opportunity to present their own report and be reviewed during the first quarter of 2024. All these efforts testify WHO’s commitment to buttress government’s determination to ensure health of its population and are in line with the triple billion of the 13 GPW and in line with the SDGs.
The launch of the NPHA signifies a critical advancement for Sierra Leone in organizing and coordinating public health expertise and systems. With government and stakeholder support, the NPHA is poised to contribute substantially to minimizing the impact of health emergencies on the nation and the global community, fostering an accountable, efficient, proactive, and science-informed public health agenda.