Medical oxygen: an essential commodity for fighting COVID-19


Medical oxygen is an essential medicine used by healthcare professionals to treat patients with severe to critical health conditions.

These conditions include respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia and currently COVID-19, and it is also essential for surgery and trauma management, while vulnerable groups like the elderly, pregnant women and newborns, need medical oxygen on regular basis to survive in the Intensive Care Units (ICUs).

This treatment process is known as oxygen therapy, and it is the provision of medical oxygen as a healthcare intervention in providing life-saving support to patients with severe cases within various levels of the healthcare systems, such as primary health care, general wards, emergency transport, delivery rooms, operating theatres, ICUs, Outpatient units and specialised hospitals.

Therefore, all levels in the healthcare delivery system require oxygen and pulse oximeters (a medical device to monitor oxygen saturation in patients), under different scenarios that need to be met by oxygen systems.

Medical oxygen and COVID-19
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic globally, the demand for medical oxygen therapy has become an essential commodity for saving the lives of many more patients with severe and critical conditions resulting from the viral infection.

A report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals that an initial data from China advises that although majority of people with COVID-19 may have mild illnesses (40 per cent), about 15 per cent of them will experience severe illnesses that will require oxygen therapy, and five per cent will be critically ill also requiring ICU treatment.

It said in addition to this, most critically ill COVID-19 patients will require mechanical ventilation, and for these reasons healthcare facilities should be equipped with pulse oximeters, functioning oxygen systems including single-use oxygen delivery to help save lives.

That is why Dr Joseph Oliver-Commey, the Medical Director of the Ghana Infectious Disease Centre (GIDC), is advocating that more support for the sustainable supply of medical oxygen be sent to the various COVID-19 treatment centres, and health facilities across the country to save lives.

Speaking to the Ghana News Agency (GNA) under the “Mobilisation Media for Fighting COVID-19” project, being implemented by the Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) in Collaboration with the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA), the Centre had seen a cumulative number of 704 patients, with 447 being outpatients and 257 as inpatients since it started operating in January 2021.

Dr Oliver-Commey explained that 207, that is 81 per cent of its patient population have so far, been diagnosed with COVID-19, and their conditions were classified as severe to critical, but sadly 39 people representing 15.2 per cent of its hospitalized population, have succumbed to the virus and died of it.

He said although the Centre, is a 100-bed unit, it is currently functioning as a 30-bed capacity due to some constraints, one of which being oxygen availability.

“For this facility to function at full capacity, we need an average of about 2,000 litres per minute load of oxygen,” he said.

The Private Sector Fund also supported the Centre in 2020, when it was in dire need of oxygen followed by the U.S Government. These are not enough and Dr Commey is appealing for more support from individuals, philanthropists, and corporate organisations to help save more lives.

The US government Embassy through the U.S. Department of Defense’s Overseas Humanitarian, Disaster, and Civic Aid programme has also donated a $1.5 million Negative Pressure Isolation System to the Greater Accra Regional Hospital at Ridge.

According to Dr Anthony Ofosu, the Deputy Director General, GHS, with the current oxygen crisis in Ghana due to the pandemic, “we sometimes have to redirect those that are used for the treatment of other health conditions, for COVID-19”.

The oxygen plants are a life-saving medicine and despite being an essential medicine, medical oxygen is a complex product, and it needs to be produced by a medical device or an industrial plant, and that requires a whole system to safely reach patients.

This requires technology, that is able to trap atmospheric oxygen and concentrate it into medical oxygen, but this skill is lacking and not widespread in some countries.

Unfortunately, the sector is faced with the challenge of fair distribution of medical oxygens and their correct use by medical professionals to ensure patient safety.

Legal Backing

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was unanimously proclaimed by the UN General Assembly as a common standard for all humanity, in its Article 25, set forth the rights of everyone to the, “standard of living adequate for health and well-being of himself and his family, including… and medical care and…the right to security in the event of… sickness, disability… or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”.

Though the Declaration does not define the components of a right to health, it includes and transcends medical care in terms of the prevention, treatment, and control of epidemic, occupational and other diseases, and the creation of conditions, which would assure to all medical service and attention in the event of sicknesses.

A publication by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on December 10, 2017, headlined “Health is a fundamental human right,” in its third paragraph explains that the right to health has been central to the Organisation’s identity and mandate, and at the heart of its top priority is Universal Health Coverage (UHC) by 2030.

It explains that the right to health for all people means that everyone should have access to the health services they need, when and where they need them, without suffering.

Oxygen surge plan
According to health experts, the ability to boost capacity to deliver oxygen therapy is the cornerstone of the overall approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic, and this has key implications for the functioning of the entire health system.

They recommend that the principle of building surge capacity be integrated into every health system’s readiness and response capacities for all functions either centrally or at the facility level.

The oxygen surge plan, they said, should also be integrated into the overall COVID-19 response plan, in such a way that if a new treatment Centre is planned, the location and layout of the construction site will be a key factor for the oxygen surge planning.

Despite the importance of medical oxygen in the fight against COVID-19, delivery systems are limited in many resource-limited countries including Ghana, leading to the hike in the death as a result of the Delta variant which results in increasing hospitalisation .

In Ghana, according to Dr Kwame Achiano, Head of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI), of the Ghana Health Service, the Delta variant is highly transmissible and deadly than the initial strains, therefore, adherence to all the hygiene and safety protocols, and getting vaccinated is the only options for lowering the spread of the disease and eventually eliminating it.

It is sad to note that inspite of the hard work and strenuous efforts being made by healthcare professionals and the government to stop the spread of infections and deaths, some members of the public have chosen to remain adamant to calls to the strict adherence to the safety protocols.

Ghana as at September 27th as reported on the Ghana Health Service COVID-19 website, has recorded 126 new cases, 3,154 active cases, 123,036 recoveries/discharge, and 1,152 deaths.

The global fight against COVID-19 is far from over, and as the pandemic continues, the Delta variant presents a new wave of challenges and reemphasises the importance of redoubling efforts to combat the virus.

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