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Solar Powers Vital Oxygen For Children in Uganda

August 18, 2016Posted by Wendy Joan Biddlecombe

When Dr. Michael Hawkes traveled to Uganda to help treat malaria patients, he couldn’t overlook a glaring gap in care—the lack of oxygen machines, and the very unreliable electricity source that powered them.

“The clinical need was obvious from day one. When the power goes out at hospitals that use oxygen concentrators that rely on electricity, patients die,” said Hawkes, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Alberta. “Patients on life support are at risk. This was a pressing need.”

In developing countries such as Uganda, oxygen therapy is costly and logistically challenging. Most hospitals rely on oxygen delivered in cylinders or portable oxygen machines that are at mercy of power outages.

Hawkes and his team decided to develope an off-the-grid model that only needs sunlight and air to work. Solar panels installed on a hospital’s roof power oxygen machines inside the hospital and extract oxygen from the existing air.

“We were looking for a pragmatic and cheap solution that could be implemented anywhere,” he added.

Hawkes’ model was installed in two hospitals in Uganda and used to treat 28 children with pneumonia through a pilot program funded by a grant from the Canadian government.

One of the test sites was a large pediatric hospital in Jinja, where Hawkes observed two to three outages a week that lasted as little as 30 minutes but up to 18 hours. A follow-up study found that the solar-powered oxygen works just as well as oxygen delivered through a cylinder.

photos SPO2.003

Photo by University of Alberta

Dr. Kumbi Saleh, who has worked at the hospital in Jinja for the past four years, said that before the solar panels were installed, the busy hospital had just two oxygen concentrators that were in poor condition and unreliable because of power cuts.

“Occassionaly, a single cylinder of compressed oxygen [would be dropped off and] could not last long,” Saleh said. “Some of the parents would buy cylinder oxygen in case of power cuts. Some of the children had to be referred to private health centers and for those who could not afford [it], they would just wait for the power to be reconnected.”

Globally, Pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children under the age of 5. Oxygen therapy is a common treatment for this lung infection, but areas such as Southeast Asia and subsaharan Africa see the majority of deaths from this treatable and preventable condition due to lack of oxygen therapy.

“There has been a great reduction in deaths related to lack of oxygen,” Saleh said. “We were able to help poor critically ill patients without referring them elsewhere.”

Photo by University of Alberta

The solar oxygen continues to benefit the sickest children at the hospital who suffer from conditions besides pneumonia, including congenital heart disease, asthma, poisoning and other ailments.

One of this children is Benson, who was 6 months old and suffering from pneumonia in a remote area when a local nurse had heard of the oxygen study and called the coordinator. He picked up the baby and his mother on a motorcycle and drove them twenty minutes down the rode to the study site at Kambuga.

“He got oxygen and got better,” Hawkes recalled. “Now he’s a one-year-old who is walking and talking. He would have potentially died without oxygen.”

Hawkes’ team is now working to bring solar-powered oxygen to 80 hospitals across Uganda. The Uganda Ministry of Health is supportive of the effort, and Hawkes said both the Clinton Health Access Initiative and Grant Challenges Canada have enthusiastically embraced the project (though not officially signed on).

Doctors CC gLangille

Photo by gLangille

Regan Lachapelle, communication director for Clinton Health Access Initiative, said the foundation is working with the Ugandan Ministry of Health to expand access to oxygen in hospitals.

“Oxygen therapy is a critical tool in the treatment of severe pneumonia which is the number one cause of child mortality in Uganda outside of neonatal causes,” Lachapelle said. “We have had discussions with them on expanding the scope and scale of their project and is providing advice and coordinating where helpful.”

Since presenting the concept at a pneumonia summit last fall and a paper on the project in May, Hawkes said he has heard from other global health researchers who are interested in incorporating solar power in their designs.

Featured photo courtesy of Dylan Walters

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