COVID-19 is causing a massive burden of respiratory infections around the world. It has tested health care systems to breaking point and disrupted routine health services, especially for children.
More than five million people have officially died of COVID-19 but the true death toll is likely to be five times higher. This could increase ‘all-cause’ pneumonia deaths to 6.1 million in 2021. No other infection causes anywhere near this burden of death.
Disruptions to child health services could further increase pneumonia’s death toll.
A lack of equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and medicines is the primary reason why the COVID-19 response in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) is lagging so far behind.
Nowhere is that disparity more evident than in the case of medical oxygen.
Access to oxygen has been a systemic challenge in LMICs for decades. Many countries entered the pandemic ill-equipped to respond to the massive demand for oxygen.
Oxygen is an essential medicine for the treatment of patients with severe COVID-19 but, together with steroids such as dexamethasone, it remains beyond the reach of the poorest and most vulnerable. The pandemic has revealed oxygen shortages in EVERY region of the world and high out-of-pocket costs have resulted in tragedy when patients cannot afford to pay.
The international effort to help LMICs increase oxygen supplies is coordinated by the ACT-Accelerator (ACT-A) Oxygen Emergency Taskforce, which is co-chaired by Unitaid and the Wellcome Trust.
Since its establishment in February 2021, the taskforce has provided around $US600 million worth of oxygen supplies to more than 75 countries, including liquid oxygen, oxygen plants and concentrators. It has brought the largest oxygen suppliers to the table and mobilized a network of non-profit agencies with oxygen expertise to support LMIC health ministries and governments.
The Every Breath Counts Coalition and Unitaid co-chair the advocacy and communications for the Taskforce.
The oxygen crisis is far from over. The taskforce needs $US1.4 billion to continue its work, as outlined in the ACT-A Strategic Plan and Budget. G20 nations are well-placed to strengthen the international oxygen response in countries at risk by financing the ACT-A.
Investing in oxygen will continue to save lives beyond the pandemic, especially for newborns and children with pneumonia, adults with infectious and chronic conditions, and patients requiring surgery.
Oxygen access has been a long-neglected element of health system planning, despite being an essential treatment for a range of diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the role of medical oxygen as a life-saving therapy for patients struggling to breathe. In LMICs, many health facilities are unequipped to meet the rising demand.
Almost half of all hospitals in these areas have an inconsistent supply of medical oxygen, or lack it entirely. More than ever, timely and robust planning for reliable oxygen delivery is needed to protect and save lives.
Q: How to protect maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health and nutrition services in low- and middle-income countries during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Q: How do we prioritize invasive versus less-invasive respiratory therapies in low-resource settings?
Q: How can international actors best support local manufacturing of WHO-recommended COVID-19 technologies, where appropriate and feasible?
Children and adults living in countries that do not offer pneumonia-fighting vaccines are dangerously exposed to pneumonia and at risk of infecting others.
One year after the launch of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) Oxygen Emergency Taskforce, what has been achieved?
More than 40,000 children died from pneumonia in Somalia, Guinea, South Sudan and Chad in 2019. Introducing PCV will protect kids from pneumonia and save lives.