SCCM Africa Infrastructure Relief and Support Project Will Improve Access to Lifesaving Oxygen in West Africa

Written by on January 25, 2023

By Tony Morain

  • The Society of Critical Care Medicine’s (SCCM) Africa Infrastructure Relief and Support (AIRS) project will help bring lifesaving oxygen to hospitals in The Gambia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
  • Oxygen is an essential medication used to treat COVID-19, pneumonia, surgery, trauma, pregnancy, and many other conditions.
  • The SCCM AIRS project received a $5.5 million grant from Direct Relief.

To ensure the availability of medical oxygen to patients in West Africa, SCCM is launching the Africa Infrastructure Relief and Support (AIRS) project, made possible by a $5.5 million grant from Direct Relief.

Under SCCM’s global health initiative, AIRS—in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Global Alliance of Perioperative Professionals (GAPP) and the Institute of Global Perioperative Care— officials in The Gambia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone will identify specific medical oxygen-related needs, including hospital-based infrastructure, oxygen-generating plants, and solar energy.

SCCM plans to expand the initiative to additional countries eventually.

The World Health Organization notes that oxygen is an essential lifesaving medication with no substitute. It is used to treat respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19 and pneumonia, during surgery, and trauma, and often is needed for vulnerable patients, including elderly patients, pregnant patients, and newborns. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the severe lack of access to medical oxygen in various parts of the world, including several countries in West Africa.

“The Gambia, for instance, had no medical oxygen at all until last year and was relying on industrial oxygen, which is not suited for patient care,” said John B. Sampson, MD, chair of the SCCM AIRS project and an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. “In most hospitals, healthcare professionals take it for granted that they can turn a knob or push a button and provide patients with oxygen, whether through a face mask, cannula, or ventilator.”

Officials and healthcare professionals from the three countries have informed project staff about their oxygen needs and are working closely with SCCM AIRS leaders. The project will involve the development of oxygen-generating plants, installation and maintenance of solar panels to ensure an ongoing power supply to the equipment, installation of oxygen piping within facility walls, and in-depth training for workers who will operate solar and oxygen-generating systems to ensure the sustainable provision of benefits for years to come. The projects will vary based on each country’s specific needs:

  • The Gambia: Only one hospital in the country has medical oxygen, so the government and medical community have requested the development of an oxygen-generating facility at another hospital.
  • Liberia: Because the country has ongoing oxygen access issues, officials are requesting the development of an oxygen-generating facility for a rural hospital. Because of an unstable power grid, the project will develop a solar-based renewable energy system to power the oxygen-generating supply.
  • Sierra Leone: Because the country has plans to create an oxygen-generating facility, officials have requested the development of renewable solar energy.

SCCM will offer complimentary memberships and Fundamental Critical Care Support (FCCS) training for critical care professionals in the three countries once the oxygen and solar infrastructure are developed.

“The SCCM AIRS project is unique and exactly the type of program that is needed in areas throughout Africa and the world to fund in Africa,” said Thomas Tighe, president and chief executive officer of Direct Relief. “It’s uniquely positioned to centralize resources and talent to meet these needs, and it’s a privilege to support this vital work.”

Direct Relief’s investment in the AIRS project represents its single most significant investment in oxygen availability to date, building on its efforts in recent years to equip healthcare professionals across 65 countries with oxygen generation plants, ventilators, and oxygen concentrators, in coordination with organizations such as Every Breath Counts.

This new partnership has all of the ingredients for success – a smart funder (Direct Relief) with a strong track record of delivering the right oxygen supplies to the countries in greatest need in record time, a network of clinicians (Society of Critical Care Medicine) fully engaged with government and local hospitals to ensure the operation and maintenance of the new equipment, and the use of solar power to overcome the energy challenges that are often the major barrier to sustained oxygen access,” said Leith Greenslade, coordinator for Every Breath Counts. “This is the type of oxygen access model we need to see in many more countries. Bravo to the partners.”

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