A Bold, High-Impact Approach to Saving Lives with Medical Oxygen

A Bold, High-Impact Approach to Saving Lives with Medical Oxygen

Every day, preventable deaths occur because of a lack of medical oxygen. Medical oxygen treats a wide range of critical conditions – premature infants in respiratory distress, mothers with obstetric emergencies, children suffering from pneumonia. Globally, pneumonia is the leading cause of death for children under the age of five and oxygen therapy is a key component of treatment. 

A study in Papua New Guinea found that improved oxygen systems, including reliable oxygen availability and pulse oximetry, can reduce the risk of death for a child with pneumonia by 35%. [1]

In East Africa, rural health facilities truck oxygen in cylinders hundreds of miles to deliver a fraction of the lifesaving gas needed. Long transportation distances and few production facilities make oxygen costly and scarce. Even when oxygen does arrive, health workers lack adequate oxygen therapy training. These issues directly impact the patients most in need of lifesaving oxygen.

Assist International (AI) believes that no child should ever die from pneumonia because of a lack of medical oxygen. Medical oxygen scarcity is a complex challenge that we, together with our partners, set out to solve. Our multifaceted program addresses the key barriers to oxygen access: 1) lack of availability, 2) lack of oxygen therapy equipment at healthcare facilities, and 3) lack of oxygen therapy clinical knowledge and expertise.

Our program provides a solution to each of these barriers. We partner with investors and governments to implement a financially-sustainable, locally-operated oxygen production center that provides affordable, reliable oxygen to hospitals in hard-to-reach communities.

The results have been sensational. In Rwanda, use of medical oxygen increased by 852% within two years at our host hospital.  Five years after the oxygen plant construction, that hospital consumes an astounding 1875% more oxygen monthly than at baseline. The percent of neonatal respiratory infections that ended in death decreased from 9.01% to 0% at hospitals served by the plant. [2] [3]

AI joined the United4Oxygen coalition in 2016 and collaborated with the Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH) in Ethiopia where pneumonia is the biggest killer of children, responsible for 18% of mortality in children under the age of five. [4]

Partners including – Grand Challenges Canada, the GE Foundation, the Amhara Regional Health Bureau and the FMoH – formed a Public-Private Partnership (PPP), establishing two locally-managed oxygen centers in the Amhara region.

This year we launched construction of a third oxygen production center in the Oromia Region. Oromia has four more sites planned. The FMOH has called for additional scale-up across Ethiopia.

We estimate that the two current plants will directly provide oxygen to 100,000 patients in the next five years, and 62,000 of these will be children.

On World Pneumonia Day, AI issued a call to action. Our oxygen program can have a transformational impact on health outcomes in LMICs around the world. Through additional partnerships, we can end the scarcity of medical oxygen in some of the world’s most challenging health contexts and save millions of lives. Together, we can stop one of the leading killers of children across the globe – pneumonia.

By Jim Stunkel, Assist International

December 2019

[1] Improved oxygen systems for childhood pneumonia: a multihospital effectiveness study in Papua New Guinea (THE LANCET) https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(08)61164-2/fulltext
[2] Oxygen Program: Health Implications Update Yr1-Yr3, Health Builders.  Internal Program Report, October 2017
[3] Program hospitals also received a pediatric CPAP program from the same group, which may have also contributed to the reduction in fatalities
[4] The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Ministry of Health. (n.d.) T. (2016). National Medical Oxygen and Pulse Oximetry Scale Up Road Map. p. 2