The life-saving power of medical oxygen

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The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated global demand for oxygen and made the delivery of oxygen supplies more urgent. WHO is working in the most vulnerable countries to scale up oxygen supply.

Oxygen is an essential medicine used to care for patients at all levels of the healthcare system, including in surgery, trauma, heart failure, asthma, pneumonia and maternal and child care.

Pneumonia alone accounts for 800 000 deaths per year. It is estimated that 20–40% of these deaths could be prevented with the availability of oxygen therapy.

An infant born premature receives oxygen at De Martino Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia. © WHO / Fouzia Bano

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated global demand for oxygen and made the delivery of oxygen supplies more urgent than ever. The need for oxygen has increased to 1.1 million cylinders in low to middle-income countries alone.

Early in the pandemic, WHO’s first phase approach was to scale up oxygen supply in the most vulnerable countries by procuring and distributing oxygen concentrators and pulse oximeters.

WHO staff Fuad Abdisalam (left) and Nimcaan Aden move an oxygen concentrator from a WHO warehouse to a hospital in Hargeisa. © WHO / Mustafa Saeed

As of February 2021, WHO and partners have distributed over 30 000 concentrators and 40 000 pulse oximeters and patient monitors, reaching 121 countries, including 37 countries that are classified as “fragile”.

WHO is also supporting with technical advice and, in some places, procurement of oxygen sources at scale. This includes pressure swing absorption plants that would be able to cover higher oxygen demand in larger health facilities.

Specific barriers to oxygen systems include cost, human resources, technical training, and continuous and reliable power supply.

Dr Vanvilay Keomahavong teaches health workers how to safely insert a breathing tube during a COVID-19 ICU training session at Setthathirath Hospital in Lao People’s Democratic Republic in August 2020. © WHO / Bart Verweij

In the past, some countries have had to rely exclusively on oxygen cylinders from private vendors that are often situated abroad, limiting the continuity of supply. The Emergency Preparedness Unit at WHO is working with the Ministries of Health in places like Somalia, South Sudan, Chad, Eswatini, Guinea Bissau and other countries, to design oxygen plans to fit local needs and create a more sustainable and self-sufficient oxygen supply.

HO staff Dr Simon Ssentamu verifies the oxygen cylinder supply at a health facility in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. © WHO / Fabeha Monir

In parallel, the WHO Innovation / SDG3 Global Action Plan (GAP) initiative has found one solution to creating more reliable power supplies through solar energy. Solar-powered oxygen concentrators were recently installed in a regional children’s hospital in Galmudug state, Somalia. The partnership among innovation funders at the International Development Innovation Alliance, the WHO innovation team and the SDG3 GAP innovation accelerator aims to connect the supply of mature innovations with country demand.

The WHO Innovation / SDG3 GAP initiative has identified Nigeria, Pakistan, Haiti and South Sudan as potential countries to scale innovations.

Nurses Hodo Abdi (left), Layla Mohamed (center) and Hamda Fathi make beds at one of the wards of the isolation centre at Abaarso Tech University — Daryeel Hospital in Hargeisa. © WHO / Mustafa Saeed

In addition to serving COVID-19 patients, WHO’s increased efforts to provide oxygen support is already contributing to the treatment of other diseases, leading to an overall strengthening of health systems.

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