Oxygen is a lifesaving therapeutic medical gas which can improve clinical outcomes for children suffering from severe pneumonia and other respiratory diseases. Unfortunately, oxygen therapy remains an inaccessible luxury for many ill children.
Oxygen is a life-saving medical gas for treating respiratory illnesses and for managing various health system needs, like emergency obstetric care, surgery and anesthesia. However, it is seldom available in the poorest countries beyond urban hospitals and private providers.
Hypoxemia, an abnormally low level of oxygen in the blood, can be fatal. It results from complications of common illnesses or surgery and requires oxygen therapy for treatment. Pneumonia, an infection of the lungs is linked to 15 per cent of all under five deaths. Approximately 13 per cent of children with pneumonia have hypoxemia, which increases the risk of death by up to five times.
Ensuring oxygen is accessible to children with hypoxemia, pneumonia or other respiratory illness is challenging. There are inherent complexities in the procurement, distribution and utilization of appropriate equipment for a large proportion of severely ill children. For example, the equipment for detecting hypoxemia and delivering oxygen (such as a pulse oximeter or nasal cannula) may not be available in children’s sizes.
“Nowhere is the technology gap more apparent than in the provision of oxygen … Oxygen is seldom available in the poorest countries beyond urban hospitals and private providers. Pulse oximeters, effective and inexpensive diagnostic devices for measuring blood oxygen levels, are similarly unavailable to those who need them most.”
With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF’s Oxygen Therapy Project jointly with the World Health Organization aims to provide governments with practical tools for building oxygen systems in their countries.
There are three key components to the project:
- The UNICEF oxygen system planning tool helps countries map out oxygen equipment needs at health facilities across the country. It is also useful for COVID-19 response planning. The algorithm and global level inputs were informed by the UNICEF advisory committee and technical review group of experts. Further development was supported by The Government of Ghana through the SPRINT Project.
- An interagency technical specifications and guidance manual for procuring oxygen devices so decision makers understand what types of equipment are necessary for providing oxygen.
- Updating the UNICEF Supply Catalogue to include the full range of products required to provide oxygen, so decision makers worldwide can purchase the equipment if the appropriate devices are not available on local markets.
These three key activities implemented in unison can enable a government to do rational device planning and procurement to ensure oxygen therapy is available at health facilities across a country.
UNICEF is currently introducing and testing the project components in Ghana and Senegal. The learnings will inform further development of the project and support UNICEF’s efforts to spread the resources to more decision makers globally, where key activities can be adapted for the differing contexts of each country.
Through a systematic approach, the Oxygen Therapy Project can help governments worldwide ensure life-saving oxygen therapy is available to children suffering from respiratory illnesses, so that under-five deaths can be prevented in the future.
Oxygen Therapy during COVID-19 response
UNICEF’s Oxygen Therapy Project has been expanded and scaled to urgently respond to global oxygen needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
UNICEF is sending oxygen concentrators to countries impacted by the crisis.
UNICEF is providing oxygen therapy in Senegal during COVID-19.
- From UNICEF Peru: Getting oxygen to the heart of the Amazon, Aug 2020
- In the New York Times, discussing UNICEF’s oxygen response to the COVID-19 pandemic: “A Simple Way to Save Lives as COVID-19 Hits Poorer Nations.” June 2020
- From UNICEF Supply Division: A fundamental and sustainable response to COVID-19: improving local oxygen systems, April 2020
- Oxygen Therapy Project Brief, June 2020
- UNICEF oxygen system planning tool, April 2020
- WHO-UNICEF technical specifications and guidance for oxygen therapy devices November 2019
- Oxygen is essential: a policy and advocacy primer, November 2017
- Providing oxygen to children in hospitals: a realist review, April 2017
- Pulse oximetry: technology to reduce child mortality in developing countries, July 2013
- Oxygen is an essential medicine: a call for international action, November 2010
- UNICEF Target Product Profiles webpage
- UNICEF Supply Catalogue
* Henrietta H. Fore is the Executive Director of UNICEF and Kevin Watkins is the Chief Executive of Save the Children UK. Article can be found here.