The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a critical gap in the world’s oxygen supply that’s leading to a million preventable deaths a year, health leaders said Thursday during a panel hosted by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the Clinton Health Access Initiative.
The philanthropic groups, which together are finalists for a $100 million MacArthur Foundation grant for oxygen relief efforts in Africa, hosted Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and two African health care leaders to discuss the problem.
“No one, no matter where they live or what their incomes, should die from lack of oxygen. A condition we can diagnose easily, treat affordably, and prevent globally,” former President Bill Clinton, who moderated the discussion, said.
“If you live in a wealthy country, having too little oxygen in your blood is a problem doctors have the tools and training to treat. In other parts of the world, it can still be a death sentence, so we have quite a health equity crisis on our hands now aggravated obviously by COVID.”
A man pushes a trolley with an empty cylinder to be filled on Feb. 27, 2021 in Villa El Salvador, Lima, Peru.Getty Images
Citing statistics from the World Health Organization, Fauci said up to 500,000 newborn deaths each year are due to a lack of available medical oxygen and 40% of adult and pediatric pneumonia deaths could be prevented with better access to O2.
“We are dealing with an extraordinary problem that needs to be addressed,” Fauci said.
“I’ve been doing this for now 40 years and the thought of oxygen shortage never really crossed my mind until all of a sudden it hit me right in the face when we were seeing shortages right here in the United States and only then did I go back and take a look at what was going on in some of the low and middle income countries.”
Dr. John Nkengasong, the Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control, said a lack of medical oxygen has been an enormous problem plaguing the African Union and has lead to a slew of preventable deaths simply because the O2 can’t be delivered in time.
“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were just 68 oxygen generating plants on the continent of Africa, a continent of 55 member states with 1.2 billion people,” Nkengasong explained, adding the number of plants have increased 40% amid the pandemic.
An elderly woman suffering from COVID-19 breathes with the help of an oxygen mask in a hospital in Pochaiv, Ukraine, on May 1, 2020.AP
“Though the increase is promising, challenges continue … including the ability to maintain those oxygen plants across the continent and provide continuous and predictable financing to support them.”
Joy Phumaphi, the former Botswana Minister of Health and co-Chair of the United Nations Secretary General’s Independent Accountability Panel for Women, Children, and Adolescent Health, said the issue goes beyond just a lack of oxygen.
“One of the biggest challenges as well is misdiagnosis or failure to actually diagnose patients who have low blood oxygen. It is estimated that 80% of the patients with low blood oxygen are not actually diagnosed with low blood oxygen primarily because of lack of access to a simple way of testing blood oxygen, whereas we do know that there are pulse oximeters, which are very, very simple tools,” Phumaphi explained.
“You also need to train your health professionals on how to diagnose and equip them with the pulse oximeters.”
The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the Clinton Health Access Initiative are attempting to bring those pulse oximeters to five African countries that account for nearly a third of hypoxemia cases globally and make high-quality medical oxygen available in hospitals in those locales.
A maintenance worker loads oxygen cylinders in the Severo Ochoa Hospital in Leganes on the outskirts of Madrid on Feb. 24, 2021.AP
In pilot projects already underway, the proportion of hypoxemic children receiving oxygen doubled in 74 Nigerian and Ethiopian hospitals, according to the groups’ proposal.
“In Southwest Nigeria, access to pulse oximetry and oxygen therapy cut the risk of death in half for children admitted to hospital with pneumonia,” their proposal reads.
The panelists said the problem, which won’t take an enormous undertaking to fix, will continue until there’s a dedicated commitment to addressing it in the form of policy changes, infrastructure development and funding.