One of the most common healthcare challenges we’ve witnessed in our work at Gradian is the dire lack of medical oxygen at hospitals in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in rural settings. Oxygen is among the most necessary medical treatments in the world, and is central to the management of critically-ill patients suffering from conditions such as trauma, obstetric complications, heart failure, and respiratory diseases like pneumonia, a leading cause of death for children globally. This dearth of medical oxygen is often an issue of supply and distribution, but it is also exacerbated by hospitals’ unreliable electricity, insufficient equipment to deliver oxygen to patients, shortage of medical supplies, and limited clinical skills to provide oxygen therapy effectively. To observe a patient in intensive care or post-operative recovery – already in an urgent and vulnerable state – who is unable to receive medical oxygen is to be exposed to one of global health’s most heartbreaking tragedies. And yet, it is a reality that leads to thousands of deaths every day.
Earlier this week, Nigerian doctor Sylvester Ikhisemojie published a column on the impact of medical oxygen shortages at hospitals in Nigeria. Among his many insights is this harrowing story:
It was once my misfortune to observe the serial death of some four patients in an intensive care unit. All were on ventilators and dependent on oxygen. As their machines failed to work in the absence of power, there was not enough manpower to help drive oxygen into their lungs. The two patients able to get that manual sort of assistance survived till the morning at which point a fifth one died. In a bizarre turn of events that unfortunate night, public power supply went off as usual. However, the backup generator failed to come on. The engineers battled unsuccessfully for nearly an hour to get the generator to work but as they did so, the patients died one after another.
We’re glad to see the topic of oxygen access make headlines in Nigeria so tragedies like the one described above no longer occur. We hope that Dr. Ikhisemojie’s article helps raise awareness of this overlooked issue and mobilize local and international actors to work to overcome this increasingly urgent challenge.
Related: Gradian’s op-ed in the Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog: Breathing Life into Medical Oxygen Ahead of WHO Committee Decision
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