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How COVID Helped Grow an Essential Treatment for Pneumonia

A model of this text was initially revealed in Undark Journal.

On a late April afternoon, the Ngor Well being Heart in Dakar, Senegal, is serene. Daylight spills via architectural gaps within the ceiling and luxurious crops line cream-colored corridors. In a affected person ready space on the second ground, a workers member gently rolls a ball forwards and backwards with a toddler.

The calm belies the chaos on the well being heart eight months prior, in the summertime of 2021, when COVID-19 struck the West African nation in its third and deadliest wave. The one reminder exists excessive up on the partitions: slim copper pipes skilled via roughly drilled holes. The pipes had been constructed as Ngor frantically retrofitted its ready space with further beds in a bid to increase the middle’s restricted oxygen community to deal with the inflow of COVID sufferers.

However to the pediatrician Idrissa Demba Ba, the scramble for oxygen—which, in lots of nations, got here to represent the pandemic—was nothing new. Actually, it’s a trademark of one other scourge he’s been battling for 18 years, childhood pneumonia. The illness, attributable to an an infection of the lungs that disrupts respiration, killed 2,400 Senegalese youngsters beneath the age of 5 in 2019.

Pneumonia could be triggered when a pathogen—as an example, a virus, micro organism, or fungus—enters the lungs, the place it inflames the air sacs, inflicting them to fill with fluid or pus and making it exhausting to breathe. Youngsters are extra weak to the illness as a result of their lungs and immune programs are nonetheless creating. To deal with the situation, there are three foremost choices: antibiotics, antivirals, and oxygen. Day-after-day, there are kids who should be related to an oxygen provide, says Ba, who’s head of pediatric pulmonology at Dakar’s Albert Royer Nationwide Youngsters’s Hospital.

The World Well being Group lists oxygen as a vital drugs, which appears intuitive for an important, life-sustaining gasoline. But in Senegal and plenty of different creating nations, offering oxygen in its medical type could be fraught: The medical-grade oxygen is dear, getting it from one place to a different requires the development of pipelines and different infrastructure, and medical personnel have to be skilled to manage it.

These supply-chain obstacles threaten, per one estimate, greater than 7 million youngsters in low- and middle-income nations who get pneumonia annually and want oxygen to outlive. Restricted provides are a part of the explanation the illness stays the commonest infectious reason for demise in youngsters worldwide, claiming the lives of greater than 740,000 beneath the age of 5 in 2019. Youthful youngsters are extra weak—29 % of pneumonia deaths happen inside the first month of life, and three-quarters inside the first yr.

Most of these affected stay in lower- and middle-income nations like Senegal, the place the danger of pneumonia is exacerbated by malnutrition and different points, says Papa Birane Mbodji, the top of new child well being on the Division of Mom and Youngster Well being in Senegal’s Ministry of Well being and Social Motion. One other risk is the close by Sahara Desert, which sweeps in big quantities of mud that contribute to the area’s outsize international burden of younger sufferers.

When there isn’t sufficient oxygen to deal with these youngsters, their lungs fail, eliciting grunts as they struggle desperately to rake in additional oxygen from the air, Ba says—a symptom that echoes the devastating results of COVID-19. Whereas the world’s consideration has been skilled on COVID, “you could possibly mainly say there’s an ongoing pandemic of pneumonia mortality,” says Keith Klugman, an infectious-disease knowledgeable who heads the pneumonia program on the Invoice and Melinda Gates Basis.

However there could also be an upside: The disaster of the coronavirus pandemic drew the world’s consideration to the essential significance of oxygen. Seeing how shortly nations galvanized to sort out COVID, Klugman and different specialists wrote a Lancet article in November 2020, calling for them to construct on the pandemic’s uncommon good points—akin to rising oxygen infrastructure—to assist curb childhood pneumonia. The authors wrote: “The COVID-19 response supplies alternatives to extend diagnostic and therapy companies for respiratory infections.”

Ba and different specialists on the bottom share the sentiment. Increasingly, they see COVID as a possibility to get the important useful resource to extra youngsters, to sort out this forgotten epidemic.


In opposition to this backdrop, Senegal supplied fertile floor for enchancment. Even earlier than the pandemic, and within the midst of it, the nation was interrogating its medical-oxygen infrastructure.

“The federal government of Senegal established an bold scale-up technique for oxygen as early as 2013,” wrote Lisa Smith, the access-to-medical-devices portfolio director for the market-dynamics program on the public-health nonprofit PATH, in an e mail to Undark. Then in 2017, she wrote, members of the Senegalese authorities attended a PATH-led assembly centered on widening oxygen entry. There, the federal government highlighted its work with a personal contractor to put in and preserve pressure-swing adsorption, or PSA, crops—which produce purified oxygen from ambient air on-site—at quite a lot of hospitals. After this occasion, Smith mentioned, PATH began working with the federal government to supply further help to shut different gaps in Senegal’s oxygen-supply chain.

A yr into the pandemic, PATH revealed a report primarily based on a nationwide survey of medical tools, centered on oxygen infrastructure, noting the place it was out there and the place it was most missing.

Key among the many findings of the ensuing report was that oxygen was closely concentrated at emergency facilities in giant city areas, however a lot scarcer at smaller well being facilities and posts that serve the vast majority of the inhabitants. For example, of 29 COVID-treatment facilities surveyed throughout 13 areas, Dakar, Senegal’s capital, had the very best focus of key medical instruments—62 % of pulse oximeters, which estimate blood oxygen ranges, and 84 % of useful ventilators—regardless of the town making up lower than 1 / 4 of the nation’s inhabitants.

The tools survey additionally revealed stark disparities within the distribution of PSA crops, which give a dependable provide of oxygen. Almost half of the therapy facilities with entry to a PSA plant, which value upwards of $100,000 apiece, had been concentrated in Dakar to fulfill the wants of the town’s dense inhabitants—such because the Ngor Well being Heart’s PSA plant, which was constructed there earlier than COVID hit and have become a boon in the course of the pandemic.

Inside a big, sun-drenched courtyard on the hospital grounds, the PSA plant hums inside a locked concrete enclosure. As a part of the setup, there’s a black field known as a compressor, which sucks in exterior air and pressurizes it. From there, the pressurized air is scrubbed because it runs via a filtration gadget to take away nitrogen and permit oxygen to cross via. The oxygen is then transferred to holding tanks, able to be piped into the wards.

In distinction, at most different health-care services the place PSA crops are in brief provide, health-care staff depend on smaller items of apparatus akin to oxygen concentrators and cylinders to produce the essential gasoline. These include their very own challenges: Most concentrators, that are transportable, suitcase-size machines, ship oxygen at a charge that’s too gradual for extreme COVID sufferers, and cylinders could be refilled with new oxygen solely at centralized crops, which implies that provide could be disrupted due to unreliable transport.

Sustaining this piecemeal infrastructure will also be impractical. At one other well being facility throughout city, this was evidenced by a pile of discarded concentrators strewn amongst different objects—unused respirators in water-logged bins, mosquito nets, and an previous mat and metallic mattress body stripped naked—stacked beneath a zinc roof simply exterior the entry ramp for emergency sufferers.

Such infrastructural challenges aren’t distinctive to Senegal. A 2021 WHO technical session revealed that earlier than the pandemic, the vast majority of low- and middle-income nations struggled to acquire medical oxygen. In sub-Saharan nations, 31 % of services had interrupted entry, whereas 25 % had none in any respect.

These wider findings on oxygen and COVID additionally helped inform child-pneumonia initiatives, together with a medical trial designed to check the worth of pulse oximeters in these sufferers. The trial, a part of a mission known as Instruments for Built-in Administration of Childhood Sickness, or TIMCI—collectively run by PATH, Unitaid, and the Swiss Tropical and Public Well being Institute—launched in August 2021 in a number of services in three nations, together with the arid baobab-studded area of Thiès, an hour’s drive into the countryside past Dakar. Right here, TIMCI provided pulse oximeters to docs at 59 well being posts to diagnose incoming sufferers. As of September 2022, TIMCI has screened nearly 17,000 sick youngsters in Thiès.

The gadgets work by attaching to a affected person’s finger and painlessly measuring the extent of oxygen of their blood. It’s a fast and cheap means of detecting a situation during which oxygen saturation ranges dip dangerously beneath 90 %, known as hypoxemia. Hypoxemia will increase the danger of demise by pneumonia as much as 5 occasions.

The Senegalese trial—half of a bigger multicountry initiative additionally involving Kenya, Tanzania, India, and Myanmar—intends to guage the effectiveness of pulse oximeters in additional precisely and swiftly diagnosing hypoxemia, with the intention to then assist youngsters get the pressing oxygen therapy that they want and save lives. However such initiatives will solely in the end be efficient if the important oxygen provides are available close by.


On a tree-lined avenue in downtown Dakar, Ndèye Astou Badiane sits contained in the PATH regional headquarters considering the pandemic’s legacy. In Senegal, though the well being system struggled with an actual “enhance in demand [for] oxygen,” says Badiane, who’s a respiratory-care coordinator on the nonprofit, some good got here out of it. The clear and pressing want, she provides, injected new momentum into nationwide efforts to sort out oxygen shortages.

For example, the federal government, along with PATH, is now finalizing one other evaluation of its oxygen infrastructure, upkeep, and long-term sustainability. The overarching goal is “to enhance oxygen availability and utilization in every well being facility,” Badiane wrote in a follow-up e mail.

This evolving evaluation laid the inspiration for the federal government’s most important transfer: the plan to roll out dozens of recent PSA crops, the items that produce oxygen on-site at hospitals, says Amad Diouf, the director of the Division of Infrastructure, Gear, and Upkeep at Senegal’s Ministry of Well being and Social Motion. These essential new oxygen crops, 5 of that are funded by UNICEF, are as a consequence of be put in by the top of 2022, with a deal with well being facilities throughout the nation. Firstly of the pandemic, with help from PATH and Unitaid, Senegal was in a position to purchase 175 oxygen concentrators, 1,000 oxygen masks, and 250 pulse oximeters.

There are early indications that the trouble to strengthen Senegal’s oxygen gaps is translating into good points within the struggle towards childhood pneumonia. A 2021 evaluate examine discovered that bolstering oxygen infrastructure in lower- and middle-income nations may reduce child-pneumonia deaths in hospitals by nearly half. And in Senegal, the pediatrician Mbodji says there was a notable enhance within the availability of oxygen at well being services. Although it’s troublesome to attribute solely to this modification, Mbodji says, pneumonia deaths in youngsters have declined over the previous two years.

The pandemic has additionally given pneumonia initiatives like TIMCI particular resonance. COVID-19 was “a possibility” for the Ministry of Well being to acknowledge the significance of oxygen infrastructure and speed up the unfold of lifesaving instruments like pulse oximeters via extra well being services, says Maymouna Ba, who leads the TIMCI mission in Senegal.

“Earlier than TIMCI, earlier than COVID-19, such tools, such instruments, had been simply out there at larger ranges like in hospitals, in well being facilities. However not in well being posts the place suppliers additionally want these sort of tools, these sort of instruments to raised detect extreme sickness within the early stage,” Ba says. With the TIMCI trial ongoing, she provides, there are plans to ultimately present much more pulse oximeters to well being posts throughout the entire nation.

Different pneumonia interventions have acquired an identical increase in recognition—such because the SPRINT mission, or Scaling Pneumonia Response InnovaTions, a program run by UNICEF to increase entry to antibiotics and oxygen therapy for pneumonia. This system was initially confined to sure areas, however because the pandemic started, Mbodji says, the federal government has been engaged on plans to increase it to the whole nation.


Senegal’s oxygen response is emblematic of adjustments unfolding elsewhere. COVID made plain that “you possibly can’t anticipate catastrophe to occur for the tools to be right here,” says Fatima Diaban, a critical-care doctor and member of the Each Breath Counts Coalition, an initiative by the nonprofit JustActions centered on supporting nationwide governments in lowering pneumonia deaths by the top of the last decade. In Could 2021, Senegal was amongst 9 African nations to start receiving assist from PATH and the Clinton Well being Entry Initiative to obtain new oxygen tools, funded by $20 million from Unitaid. The International Fund, a global health-care-focused funding group, with help from authorities and private-sector donors, additionally offered $475 million to 66 lower- and middle-income nations for the same function.

Now that the pandemic has eased, a few of these assets could be redeployed to deal with childhood pneumonia—one thing that’s already beneath means in different nations akin to Ethiopia, the place the federal government introduced plans in 2021 to redistribute the heart beat oximeters and oxygen therapies it used for COVID elsewhere in its health-care system.

Giant help donations typically include questions on whether or not such funding reaches the meant recipients in its entirety. PATH’s Smith mentioned there are safeguards in place to make sure it does. “Every donor has distinctive necessities for accountability and accountable use of funds,” she wrote in an e mail. For example, her group labored carefully with Senegal’s Ministry of Well being and the Division of Infrastructure, Gear, and Upkeep to distribute donated oxygen tools to services in want.

General, such initiatives may fast-track progress on pneumonia, a illness that’s nonetheless “very a lot uncared for” within the international well being discourse, regardless of its international burden, says Klugman of the Invoice and Melinda Gates Basis. Pneumonia continues to be chronically underfunded, taking simply 5 % of the cash dedicated to preventing infectious illness globally, and simply 3 % of the analysis funding allotted to infectious illnesses from 2000 to 2017 by public and philanthropic funders in G20 nations.

Prevention will probably be essential—and progress is beneath option to develop new, focused vaccines, which defend higher towards pneumonia in contrast with present vaccines, Klugman says. However for now, oxygen stays a uniquely environment friendly option to save lives. As such, the pandemic responses that many nations have drawn up present a perfect framework for motion—a “basis for continued declines in deaths from all-cause respiratory infections over the following decade,” in keeping with a 2021 report on pneumonia and the coronavirus pandemic produced by JustActions.

Certainly, it’s not simply youngsters with pneumonia who stand to profit from this unfold: Wider oxygen provisions will help folks with infectious illnesses, cardiovascular illnesses, and bronchial asthma.

This bigger significance, laid naked and elevated by the pandemic, is behind the current September 2022 launch of the Lancet International Well being Fee on medical oxygen safety, a brand new partnership of lecturers and NGOs, which is able to reportedly embrace robust illustration from lower- and middle-income nations. The fee seeks to construct on the pandemic’s good points and supply coverage makers with data and instruments to shut the essential gaps in international oxygen-supply chains.

Already, the advantages of expanded oxygen entry are evident on the Ngor well being heart, the place the copper pipes are reminders of a traumatic time however now stretch past the emergency room, ferrying oxygen to those that want it most. Simply off the primary hall of the second ground, these pipes have been skilled right into a room with partitions adorned with cheerful stickers of Dora the Explorer, flowers, and birds—a youngsters’s ward.

As Badiane places it: “In 2022, actually oxygen must be out there and reasonably priced in each well being facility.”

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