How to save three million lives

A pioneering health organization works to bring medical care to remote parts of Liberia and becomes a key player in the fight against Ebola

This story starts in Liberia, the native country of Raj Panjabi, co-founder of Last Mile Health. As a child, Raj was forced to flee Liberia with his family after civil war broke out. He grew up in the United States and went on to attend some of the best medical schools in the country. But he never forgot Liberia.

In 2005, Raj returned to his birthplace as a medical student. The Liberia he returned to was shocking. War had completely depleted the country's resources – only 50 doctors remained for a population of four million.1 He knew that something had to be done. Together, with a team of Liberian civil war survivors, American health workers and USD 6,000 that he had received as a wedding gift, Raj co-founded Last Mile Health – an initiative to provide care for those who otherwise would not have access.

A ground-breaking idea

Raj's idea was radical. Approximately 1.2 million Liberians lack access to health care and many live more than one hour's walk from a clinic.2 So, he proposed bringing health care to them. Raj wanted to train, equip and pay locals to carry out basic health care such as performing tuberculosis screenings, providing medication for those with HIV, hydrating those with diarrhea, and administering antibiotics and nutritional supplements for children.

By 2013, Last Mile Health was supporting 300 health care workers who were providing advice and care for more than 30,000 Liberians.

Despite the promising start, the situation took a turn for the worse.

In March 2014, Ebola was first reported in West Africa. Liberia, where health care resources were already stretched well beyond their limit, was hit the hardest by the outbreak. By August of the same year, the country was reporting between 300 and 400 new cases every week.3 It was clear that Last Mile Health would need to increase their reach – and fast.

A partnership formed amid crisis

This is where UBS stepped in. Prior to the Ebola outbreak, UBS Optimus Foundation had already been supporting Last Mile Health by conducting an evaluation to see how much impact the organization was having and if their health care model could be replicated in other locations.

When Ebola hit, Last Mile Health looked like the ideal organization to help. They were well-positioned to address the outbreak with their diagnosis trainings and they had already developed trust within Liberian communities. The UBS Philanthropy Advisory team worked to connect the project with clients who wanted to help.

Armed with the necessary support, Last Mile Health was able to work with the Liberian government to

  • Train and employ over 1,300 community health care workers
  • Support 38 health facilities across Liberia
  • Educate health care workers and community members about how to respond to and contain the outbreak
  • Distribute essential personal protective equipment including gloves, goggles and gowns to clinic staff

A future of collaboration

On 13 January, 2016, the World Health Organization declared Liberia to be Ebola free. It was not, however, the end of Last Mile Health or our collaboration with them.

The organization would go on, in collaboration with the Liberian government, to reach close to 700,000 people in more than 2,300 isolated communities and are on track to reach all 1.2 million Liberians living in remote areas by 2021. Research shows that they helped raise the treatment rates for malaria, pneumonia and diarrhea to 85% and increased the percentage of women who give birth in clinics from 50% to 95%.

In 2015, Raj and the UBS Optimus Foundation were awarded a Clinton Global Citizen Award, recognizing extraordinary, visionary and inspiring leadership in solving pressing global challenges.

Last Mile Health is still supported by the UBS Optimus Foundation and UBS Philanthropy Advisory. Raj spoke at our Global Philanthropy Forum in 2017, an event which provided new ideas and chances to build collaborative partnerships.

In the future, Last Mile Health plans to grow their reach to other countries. Raj believes that if his model of professionalized community health workers were scaled up, three million lives could be saved every year in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

Learn more

Why it matters

SDGs addressed:

In September 2015, the United Nations set out a plan for transforming our world by 2030. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are aimed at addressing the most pressing social and environmental challenges of our time. And we've committed to taking part in making them a reality.

You may also like: