Breathing New Life into Medical Oxygen
In low- and middle-income countries, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed a long-neglected problem that was already contributing to untold preventable deaths every year. Now, a global mobilization to scale up the supply of medical oxygen must be transformed to last into the post-COVID era.
NEW YORK – COVID-19 has taken at least 18 million lives, and it is anyone’s guess how many of those deaths were due to a lack of medical oxygen. Governments don’t want to talk about the issue, because that could mean admitting that thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of their citizens died unnecessarily. But unless health systems take steps to ensure a sufficient supply of oxygen in the future, they will be risking a repeat of the past two years.
While high-income countries are already working to secure their supplies of medical oxygen, many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) will continue to need international support. Deaths from a lack of medical oxygen in these countries preceded the pandemic, because global health and development agencies made no serious effort to help LMIC governments close the gap between need and supply.
That gap is one factor underlying LMICs’ stubbornly high newborn and child mortality, adult deaths from infectious and chronic conditions, and deaths from injuries that require surgery. Research published prior to the pandemic found that four out of five children hospitalized with pneumonia in Nigerian hospitals did not receive the oxygen they needed, and that simply putting oxygen into pediatric wards could reduce child deaths by 50%.