Kamuzu Central Hospital gets a new oxygen plant to help fight COVID-19

COVID-19 in Malawi

By Penelope Kakhobwe
Grycian at the oxygen plant working on the equipment
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Govati Nyirenda
10 December 2020

Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH), in the centre of Lilongwe, has been the epicentre of Malawi’s fight against COVID-19.

As the main hospital in the capital city, hundreds of patients who had contracted the virus have passed through its doors since the outbreak occurred in early 2020.

Between May and August, Malawi was registering as many as 50 COVID cases per day and at least one death.

But KCH had a major issue: accessing adequate supplies of oxygen. As the virus can make patients short of breath, having enough oxygen in hospitals is key to patient survival.

So Malawi’s Ministry of Health got together with UNICEF and UK Aid to solve the problem and decided to build an oxygen manufacturing plant within the hospital itself.

Dressed in crisp hospital attire, Grycian Mussa, principal medical engineer, says the construction of the plant wasn’t the main challenge to get it up and running.

“The structure was already there,” says Mussa. “The main challenge was the funding and this is when the Ministry of Health, in light of COVID- 19 pandemic, approached various donor agencies to fund the initiative.”

“Fortunately, UNICEF and UK Aid were some of the development partners which stepped in with resources to help get the plant up and running at this critical time.”

One of the cylinders at the plant
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Govati Nyirenda
One of the cylinders at the plant

Mussa said the plant was set up in an old boiler room, which was refurbished to house two oxygen tanks. A technical team of engineers from South Africa was brought to assist with the installation and bring the plant online.

“The principle is that the plant takes in the air through the vents and processes it before it becomes oxygen for use in the hospital,” says Mussa.

“The plant has the ability to not only produce oxygen in assisting the fight against COVID-19, but also with other diseases that might require oxygen as part of patient treatment.”

He explains that areas which had benefited from the new plant included the operating theatre, the eye department, the labour ward and dental theatre, the casualty and paediatric ward.

“When the plant becomes fully operational it will also produce nitrous gas which is used for surgical procedures.”

At its peak, the plant is capable of filling up 64 small oxygen cylinders and eight large cylinders in just three hours. It has the capacity to fill up about 40 cylinders if the plant operates during the night shift.

According to Dr. Jonathan Ngoma, the KCH hospital director,  they had no cases of children being infected by COVID-19 at their hospital. 

‘‘However, should one arise, we are thankful as we now have the availability of oxygen on hand to assist in the course of treatment,’’ he says.

Dr. Ngoma in his office at Kamuzu Central Hospital
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Govati Nyirenda
Dr. Ngoma in his office at Kamuzu Central Hospital

Dr. Ngoma said the pandemic has given hospitals a wakeup call on the importance of being self-sufficient, especially because most patients don’t have the option of leaving the country for treatment due to travel restrictions.

“In the meantime, we should continue with the prescribed measures that have been put in place such as washing hands with soap regularly, or the use of hand sanitizer, wearing masks and physical distancing to keep themselves and our loved ones safe,” he says.

 “It will also help in curbing a second wave of infections, since prevention is better than cure.”