sierra Leone: A Crisis of Water Contamination and Infant Mortality

The dangers for women giving birth looms large in many poor countries. Globally, more than 350,000 women die annually before, during, or after childbirth – 1,000 women every day. In Sierra Leone, women face a one-in-eight chance of dying during childbirth. Even when mothers survive these dangerous odds, many of them take their newborn home to horrifying conditions – environments filled with mounds of raw sewage and contaminated water that serve as vast magnets for a host of waterborne killer diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, polio and malaria. One-in-five of Sierra Leone’s children die before the age of five.

In a 2010 UNICEF report, a child in such an environment is likely to carry 1,000 parasitic worms in their bodies. Diarrhea kills more young children each year than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

Years ago, in the far reaches of northeastern Sierra Leone, men carried a woman on a stretcher for three days to reach a hospital. She was brought to the operating table of Dr. Samuel Kargbo, the head of reproductive health in Sierra Leone’s Health Ministry. "Before we could lay hands on her," Dr. Kargbo told me, "she died. I will never forget her."

That’s my goal as well. I want others not to forget. I want to bring people inside the lives of people on these hidden front lines, and show how sadly vulnerable a woman and her child is, in many poor countries.

–Dominic Chavez


Dominic Chavez  is an award-winning photographer who has covered a wide range of issues, but his focus in the last decade has been to create vivid images relating to the health of people in the poorest countries of the world.

      For 12 years, he worked for The Boston Globe, where he traveled widely, covering the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as documenting health issues in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. For the last five years, his work has been featured in six books published by Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. In 2007-2008, he was a media fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation.