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Episode #33 - Medical oxygen 

9 April 2021 | Science conversation

Summary

Medical oxygen is an essential medicine in the treatment of COVID-19. How is it used? Why is there a shortage in some countries and what are WHO, partners and Governments doing about it? WHO’s Dr Janet Diaz explains in Science in 5.

Podcast

Transcript

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Hello and welcome to science in 5. I’m Vismita Gupta-Smith and these are WHO’s conversations in Science. Today, we are speaking with Dr Janet Diaz about COVID-19 and essential medicine for its treatment called oxygen. Welcome, Janet. 

Dr Janet Diaz

Hi Vismita, thank you for having me. 

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Janet, oxygen is an essential medicine for COVID-19. Please explain how and when it is used for its treatment. 

Dr Janet Diaz

Well, that's a great question, you know. What happens is with some illnesses such as COVID-19, when you get a severe COVID-19, the oxygen levels in the body can get low. So, in order to keep your oxygen levels at the normal range, we have to give medical oxygen. Now, when your oxygen levels are low because of a sickness such as COVID-19, the cells in the body don't have enough oxygen to do their normal function in every cell of the body requires oxygen for normal function. So, if the oxygen levels are low, if they're low for a long time, if it's not treated, then the cells themselves stop to work well. Then, they stop to work completely and cells can actually die. So, then what you can see is that the organs start, your organs once, your organs, you know, your brain, your heart, your lungs, your kidneys all require oxygen. So, they'll start to malfunction in very extreme cases can cause death. So, again, the life saving treatment here then is medical oxygen. So, medical oxygen is taking the oxygen from the air and compressing it so that the oxygen you take in, let's say, for example, from a cylinder is that you’re now breathing in almost, you know, pure oxygen. And that is what we give patients in order to keep oxygen levels at a normal level in the body. 

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Janet, why is there such a shortage of medical oxygen in some countries? 

Dr Janet Diaz

Medical oxygen requires technology. It means that you have to be able to take the oxygen from the air, because we have oxygen in the air. About 21% of the air is oxygen. But we have to concentrate it into medical oxygen and that requires technology. So, that's one issue in some countries. The other challenge is actually distribution of medical oxygen. So, one is you concentrate the oxygen and you, you know, supply a hospital or supply a region. And the other thing is distributing. 
So, make sure that the oxygen that you have supplied, the one that you're producing, can get to the patients. I think the third challenge is knowing how to use the medical oxygen, meaning keeping the technology maintained, repairing what may be broken, making sure the piping is functional. 

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Janet, tell us about what WHO and governments are doing to address this issue. 

Dr Janet Diaz

WHO has been convening its biomedical consortium partners since the beginning of the pandemic. WHO has provided over 60 million dollars worth of medical equipment, including oxygen related devices to 122 countries. At the same time, with all its partners, so there's multiple agencies involved, that number has increased to 226 million, supplying over 148 countries. But I think, one of the most important pieces of work in addition to that, that WHO has led, is the technical advice and technical support to countries to make their own assessments of their oxygen systems in country, because the way to make investments in improving oxygen systems is that countries take the leadership, know where their gaps are. Do they have enough oxygen generation or production in their country? What are the distribution systems in order to have a gap analysis? What we would like to do is get more investments into oxygen, meaning that the scale up plans get funded and not just get funded for COVID-19, but that these things are maintained and sustained after the pandemic to strengthen the health system in general. Oxygen is life saving, not just for severe COVID-19. It is life saving for that condition, but, it is also life saving for many other conditions and thus, the investment in oxygen goes a very long way. 

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Thank you, Janet. That was Science in 5 today, until next time then. Stay safe, stay healthy and stick with science. 

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