Fri | Sep 24, 2021

Medical oxygen scarce in Africa, Latin America amid coronavirus

Published:Thursday | February 25, 2021 | 9:54 AM
In this February 22, 2021, file photo, people sit by their empty oxygen cylinders waiting for a refill shop to open in the San Juan de Lurigancho neighborhood of Lima, Peru. A crisis over the supply of medical oxygen for coronavirus patients has struck 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. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia, File)

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 the 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.

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