Medical oxygen scarce in Africa, Latin America amid virus

February 25, 2021
A worker from a private medical service brings oxygen bottles to aid the recovery of a COVID-19 patient, at her home in Lagos, Nigeria on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — A crisis over the supply of medical oxygen for coronavirus patients has struck nations in Africa and Latin America, where warnings went unheeded at the start of the pandemic and doctors say the shortage has led to unnecessary deaths.

It takes about 12 weeks to install a hospital oxygen plant and even less time to convert industrial oxygen manufacturing systems into a medical-grade network.

But in Brazil and Nigeria, as well as in less-populous nations, decisions to fully address inadequate supplies only started being made last month, after hospitals were overwhelmed and patients started to die.

The gap in medical oxygen availability “is one of the defining health equity issues, I think, of our age,” said Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who said he survived a severe coronavirus infection thanks to the oxygen he received.

Doctors in Nigeria anxiously monitor traffic as oxygen deliveries move through the gridlocked streets of Lagos.

Desperate families of patients around the world sometimes turn to the black market.

Governments take action only after hospitals are overwhelmed and the infected die by the dozens.

In Brazil’s Amazonas state, a pair of swindlers were caught reselling fire extinguishers painted to look like medical oxygen tanks.

In Peru, people camped out in lines to get cylinders for sick relatives.

Only after the lack of oxygen was blamed for the deaths of four people at an Egyptian hospital in January and six people at one in Pakistan in December did governments address the problems.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said medical oxygen is a “huge critical need” across the continent of 1.3 billion people and is a main reason that COVID-19 patients are more likely to die there during surges.

Even before the pandemic, sub-Saharan Africa’s 2,600 oxygen concentrators and 69 functioning oxygen plants met less than half the need, leading to preventable deaths, especially from pneumonia, said Dr. John Adabie Appiah of the World Health Organization.

The number of concentrators has grown to about 6,000, mostly from international donations, but the oxygen produced isn’t pure enough for the critically ill.

The number of plants that can generate higher concentrations is now at 119.

Some oxygen suppliers have dramatically raised prices, according to a doctor at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to reporters.

That has driven up the cost of a cylinder by 10 times, to $260 — more than the average monthly wage — and a critically ill patient could need up to four cylinders a day.

The World Bank has set aside $50 billion for the world’s poorest countries alone during the pandemic, and $30.8 billion has been allocated, including $80 million for oxygen-related upgrades.

A global task force focusing on oxygen was formally announced Thursday and will include the World Health Organization and World Bank, among others.

Already, $90 million was identified in immediate oxygen funding needs for 20 developing countries, including Nigeria and Malawi.

Many countries view oxygen supplies primarily as an industrial product for more lucrative sectors such as mining, not health care, and it has not been a focus of many international donors.

Oxygen manufacturing plants require technicians, good infrastructure and electricity — all in short supply in developing nations.

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