February 11, 2021

Shining a light on oxygen scarcity

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a long-neglected public health crisis: people dying due to lack of oxygen. Medical oxygen, essential to fighting respiratory illnesses, was already in short supply in low- and middle-income countries around the world before the pandemic. Now, the growing scarcity of oxygen is impacting healthcare everywhere.

Recent media reports illustrate tragic scenes of oxygen scarcity, with patients dying because they cannot breathe in hospitals across Africa, including South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Egypt, as well as elsewhere, such as Brazil, Mexico, and Pakistan. This crisis has even impacted American cities like Los Angeles, California and El Paso, Texas, where oxygen had always been available until recently.

The suffering we’ve seen will continue unless we tackle this crisis.

About 60 percent of patients with severe COVID-19 cases need oxygen support. It’s also a vital part of the treatment for illnesses like pneumonia, severe malaria, and sepsis. Indeed, low blood oxygen levels are common in many hospitalized patients – especially among young children – who need oxygen to recover. Scarcity of oxygen equipment, including pulse oximeters to detect low blood oxygen levels and guide treatment, has made it even harder to treat these patients.

The suffering and deaths we’ve seen documented, especially in low- and middle-income countries, will continue unless we tackle this crisis, worsened by the pandemic, head-on.

CHAI, the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, and our partners have worked to alleviate the oxygen crisis for years.

We partner with governments and healthcare leaders to build stronger oxygen systems that are reliable, affordable, and reach the sickest patients. This includes investing in oxygen equipment and the people and infrastructure needed to keep it working, as well as training and support to  healthcare workers to accurately identify and treat patients who need oxygen therapy.

We’re proud that our work is a finalist in the MacArthur Foundation’s “100 & Change” competition; if selected, we’ll expand our ongoing efforts to expand this lifesaving treatment in Kenya, Nigeria, India, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

We know what is needed to build strong oxygen systems.

In Nigeria, for example, the situation in some hospitals has been so dire that health workers are rationing oxygen therapy to the ill.Yet here we see a glimmer of hope.

The Lagos State Ministry of Health, alongside CHAI and the Gates Foundation, recently launched a new oxygen plant and four oxygen treatment centers. This important development resulted from a multi-year effort to invest in oxygen therapy in Nigeria and will help patients receive the treatment they need.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on a health crisis that was previously under reported. We must prioritize bridging the oxygen access gap throughout the world in order to better fight COVID-19 and all other respiratory conditions.

We know what is needed to build strong oxygen systems – and how to  work with policymakers, managers, technicians, and healthcare workers to ensure oxygen therapy reaches patients. With support, we can realize a future where no one suffers due to lack of oxygen.

Learn more about CHAI’s oxygen therapy program.

Written by Zachary Katz, Vice President – Essential Medicines, CHAI and Hamish Graham, Senior Research Fellow, MCRI
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