"This current trend of one in five children in Sierra Leone dying before the age of five due to easily preventable diseases is unacceptable, and calls for immediate and concerted action," said a joint communiqué by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) on 10 December.
The two agencies are "urgently" appealing for 1.3 million bednets, as well as anti-malaria drugs, at a cost of US$16.9 million. "The situation is now considered as constituting a potential emergency," said the statement.
The UN agencies said the rising number of deaths was due mainly to a shortage of anti-malaria medicines and other supplies. "The fundamental thing is to strengthen the procurement and supply system," Rumishael Shoo, head of child survival and development at UNICEF-Sierra Leone, told IRIN.
A procurement problem in mid-2008 caused a shortage of medicines, but the drug supply problem aside, the agencies noted that prevention and rapid response also needed to be strengthened.
Only 26 percent of children sleep under treated bednets, and just 30 percent receive malaria drugs within 24 hours of onset. "This means the approach to malaria in Sierra Leone is still more curative than preventive," the communiqué said.
The 26 percent of children sleeping with nets represents a five-fold increase from 2005, UNICEF's Shoo told IRIN. "Still, it is not enough. It is mostly a question of availability; surely, promoting bednet-use is part and parcel of what we must do, but if we have sufficient nets we will be able to mobilize people to use them."