Sierra Leone’s members of parliament (MPs) are driving forward progress on immunization goals within their country. Yet many MPs who were instrumental in defending immunization budgets and pushing forward legislation were not re-elected this year. To ensure continued progress, the Parliamentary Health and Sanitation Committee of Sierra Leone organized a parliamentary briefing on sustainable immunization financing (SIF) and invited all members of parliament (new and old) to attend in order to learn about immunization and the EPI Program.
Dr. Mohammed Kenneh, Sierra Leone’s new EPI manager, used this opportunity to brief the MPs on progress achieved by the country’s EPI program, the vaccines that are being provided and coverage across the country and in particular districts, as well as the new vaccines which are being introduced. He clearly identified the program’s needs to help ensure that the MPs would be ready to defend the EPI budget for 2014 which has recently been submitted for approval to parliament.
Over 40 MPs attended the briefing, opened by the Deputy Speaker of Parliament Hon. Chernoh Bah. Peer exchangers from Liberia were also in attendance and were able to share their experiences on establishing a Parliamentary Immunization Forum and drafting amendments related to immunization in their Public Health Act.
The UN country team also used the briefing as an opportunity to acquaint the MPs with the commitments undertaken by Sierra Leone within the Global Vaccine Action Plan (GVAP) -- a framework approved by the World Health Assembly in May 2012 to achieve universal access to immunization.
Many of Sierra Leone’s MPs are also doctors and members of the Parliamentary Health and Sanitation Committee, and therefore understood the issues well. For example, one of the MPs described the difficulties he faced when trying to vaccinate villagers in a remote part of the country earlier in his career. He stated they did not want their children vaccinated, but after some information and outreach they became more comfortable with immunization.
The MPs were interested in learning more about the Decade Of Vaccines (DOV) and the GVAP -- and especially in seeing how much the immunization program would cost in the future based on the cost of vaccines. The MPs also wanted to learn more about the Parliamentary Forums and MPs suggested creating one immediately in Sierra Leone. These Parliamentary Forums are created in Parliaments as a mechanism to create a critical mass of MPs who are knowledgeable about immunization and the needs of the immunization program -- so they can effectively defend budgets and elaborate legislation for immunization. A discussion arose on which option of the two would suit the country more, 1) the Tripartite Committee that has already been created (involving Parliament, the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Finance (MOF)) or 2) a Parliamentary Forum. Depending on the kind of powers and competencies that these two institutions would have, the country will decide which of the two to pick.
The MPs agreed that increasing the budget for immunization is an important goal. They pointed out that under current law, parliamentarians are not allowed to increase the budget after it has been submitted to parliament. After a budget has been submitted, MPs can make only small changes that do not have a significant impact. However, the parliamentarians also pointed out that prior to the submission of budget to parliament, several parliamentary committees are involved in the drafting and formulation of the budget. These parliamentary committees will be responsible for ensuring that adequate budgets are allocated to immunization in the future. (This is not the case in Liberia, where the Parliament has the power to increase the budgets even once they have been submitted.)
The MPs agreed that passing immunization legislation is an important first step. Hon. Veronica Sessay pointed out that many of the EPI staff would like to draft a series of bylaws to help regulate the Program, but they cannot do it until an immunization legislation is in place. She also noted the country is undergoing a Constitution revision process and new laws are welcomed – creating a unique opportunity to pass immunization legislation. Several MPs suggested drafting a Private Member’s bill that would be backed by enough MPs to be passed into law as an Act. Most of the MPs expressed their support. The EPI team and MPs will need to meet to discuss the best way to proceed, either through an Act drafted and submitted by the MOH or through a private member’s Bill (similar to Uganda). The MPs agreed to work on the next steps. The interest and commitment demonstrated by Sierra Leone’s MPs is an exciting indication of a positive future for the country’s EPI program.