Webcast Recap

Tornorlah Varpilah, Deputy Minister of Health, Republic of Liberia
Anne Cross, Deputy Director of Survey Operations, Macro International
Hannah Guedenet, Communications Associate, Macro International

"The Liberia Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) was done at a time when we were in dire need of statistics for health… [it] has provided us the answer to our problems," said Tornorlah Varpilah, Liberia's Deputy Minister of Health for Planning, Research and Development at a recent Woodrow Wilson Center event. Co-sponsored by the Global Health Initiative and the Africa Program, the event presented the key findings of the DHS to members of the Washington health community.

Representatives from Macro International offered data collected during a 4-month survey regarding Fertility, Family Planning, Nutrition, HIV/AIDS, Women's Empowerment, Domestic Violence, and Maternal and Child Health and Mortality. A DHS can be accessed on the Macro International website.

Most notably, the new data shows that the current HIV prevalence rate is only 1.5 percent, a surprisingly low number considering higher previous estimates and Liberia's status as a post-conflict state. Varpilah acknowledged that HIV rates could accelerate if appropriate action is not taken. Roads that were once closed are reopening and a population whose movements were once limited are becoming increasingly mobile. He noted that the Ministry of Health is not becoming complacent because of current low prevalence of HIV.

Although significantly reduced over the last 20 years, the DHS results show that under-five mortality rates are still very high—one in every nine children dies before his or her fifth birthday. The leading causes of death, according to Varpilah, are malaria, acute respiratory infection, and diarrhea.

Maternal mortality rates have increased since the last Liberia DHS (1999-2000) from approximately 550 to 994 deaths per 100,000 live births. This is adversely and significantly affected by post-conflict conditions including a low ratio of trained health workers, bad roads, and too few ambulances. It is aggravated by a high rate of teenage pregnancy.

Fortunately, the DHS provides the statistical data that Liberia had been lacking. With this new information, the government can plan health programs that will better meet the needs of its people. So far, they have created a strategic plan for maternal mortality, which includes the building and staffing of 15 new comprehensive obstetric emergency care centers throughout the country. They also plan to implement a system of "shifting tasks" which will allow nurses and physician's assistants (PAs) to take on some of the tasks usually performed by doctors; and community health workers to carry out tasks usually done by nurses and PAs. This would alleviate the stress on the limited number of trained health care workers and allow people at the community level to contribute to health needs.

Varpilah closed by looking at what comes next in addressing Liberia's health challenges: "We've done a lot [of studies]," he said, but now is the time to take action.

By Rebekah Allred