The Cost of Oxygen in Developing Countries

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SEATTLE, Washington — With COVID-19’s detrimental effects on global health, it has become clear that healthcare systems can be improved worldwide, particularly in impoverished countries. However, these healthcare disparities are not a new problem, and disadvantaged people have often faced challenges when seeking medical care. Living in poverty can mean consuming non-nutritious foods and being exposed to toxins at home and in the workplace. As such, impoverished communities are often more susceptible to medical issues. Yet, without access to proper healthcare, families worldwide become stuck in a cycle of poverty and sickness. One surprisingly expensive form of healthcare is oxygen, a resource that is becoming increasingly more necessary amid the pandemic. Fortunately, bioengineers are developing new and more affordable technologies to respond to increasing global oxygen demands.

COVID-19 and the Need for Oxygen

The novel coronavirus has spread to parts of South Asia, Latin America and Africa that are not adequately equipped to handle medical emergencies like the current global crisis. One of the symptoms of COVID-19 is breathing difficulties, which may lead to lung failure. However, impoverished communities’ lack of access to ventilators, tanks and other oxygen delivery devices can mean receiving inadequate treatment.

Oxygen is not a new medical need, as many other health conditions can restrict breathing. Yet, COVID-19 amplifies that need. Only a handful of companies produce oxygen equipment and prices are rising as demand rises, causing a lack of access in rural and impoverished areas. Ventilators can cost up to $50,000 and are challenging to move and manage. Fortunately, oxygen concentrators, a new oxygen delivery method, are much smaller and cost up to $2,000. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have begun purchasing and ordering concentrators to sent to impoverished countries. With the additional cost of transportation, both organizations need support from humanitarian organizations and individuals alike to continue its distribution.

Oxygen for Healthcare Initiatives

The global need for oxygen is not a new phenomenon. In an article published in 2010, a group of researchers calculated the international demand for oxygen and found that the leading cause of death for children in developing countries is pneumonia. Hypoxemia, a critically low level of oxygen, is a common and deadly side effect of pneumonia. This low oxygen level can also occur comorbidly with many other diseases and disorders for both adults and children.

Patients with hypoxemia in rural hospitals often face preventable death simply because oxygen is too expensive. As such, the WHO and other humanitarian organizations began seeking cost-effective oxygen treatments in 2008. As mentioned before, oxygen concentrators are a more affordable and reliable alternative to oxygen tanks. The researchers called upon world leaders in healthcare to take the necessity for oxygen seriously and increase availability using this new technology.

Oxygen Concentrators Today

So, what are oxygen concentrators? Wendelin Stark, a professor at the Institute for Chemical and Bioengineering, designs these tools with a team of experts. Oxygen concentrators can take oxygen from the air while filtering out nitrogen. Most older models require a powerful battery and access to electricity, which is not available in all hospitals. As a result, Stark and his team are designing state-of-the-art concentrators that can produce oxygen for an entire patient ward on only three laptop batteries. Stark is confident that with the right instructions and tools, low-income countries across the globe will manufacture and distribute these concentrators to those who need them.

The advancements of technology and medicine have saved and improved countless lives. However, these advancements are not available to everyone. The cost of this unequal medical progress means chronic health issues and death more often plague people in developing countries due to local hospitals’ lack of equipment. On the bright side, biomedical engineers have been developing new, affordable technologies like oxygen concentrators, which will lower the cost of oxygen and save lives worldwide.

—Levi Reyes
Photo: Flickr

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