Strengthening medical oxygen supply in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – Democratic Republic of the Congo

Kinshasa – In her small office at the University of Kinshasa clinics, nurse Agnes Bisilwala trained with a row of large gas cylinders. “In the past, three or four days would have gone without enough medical oxygen for COVID-19 patients in intensive care,” she says. “Many of them were unable to maintain oxygen and succumbed to the virus.”

All that changed at the beginning of August this year when a new plant began producing basic supplies of high-quality medical oxygen a few meters from the office of Nurse Bisilwala within the premises of the University of Kinshasa, where she headed the intensive care unit for 21 years.

With financial support from UNITAID, the World Health Organization (WHO) has piloted the construction of two medical oxygen production plants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo this year.

The plant in university clinics in Kinshasa already produces enough oxygen to fill 88 47.2 liter cylinders per day, more than double the typical daily needs of a hospital. The second plant inside the Sino-Congolese Friendship Hospital, located southeast of Kinshasa, is set to go into operation in the coming weeks.

These two institutions were chosen to house the new oxygen production plants due to their status as reference hospitals capable of providing other secondary health facilities, as well as their ability to manage severe cases.

At the height of the pandemic, both hospitals hosted dedicated treatment centers for COVID-19 patients. However, the demand for high-quality oxygen for those in critical condition soon exceeded the capacity of the centers. “We were using small oxygen concentrators, and it was very difficult to provide enough oxygen to patients in respiratory distress, who could consume up to ten 50 liter cylinders a day,” says nurse Bisilwala.

A month after the new plant became operational, Dr. Bertain Nsitwa, Project Supervisor, reiterates the significant changes he has already made. “Previously, we bought oxygen from a factory in Kingabwa, more than 15 km away. The transportation costs were prohibitive, and the oxygen level was only 30% to 50%, which sometimes deteriorated the health of patients. In contrast, the purity of The oxygen supplied by the newly built plant ranges between 92% and 96%.”

By providing high-quality oxygen at a lower cost and in greater quantities, the new facility will help address shortages across Kinshasa, where demand remains high, even with COVID-19 cases currently declining, according to official statistics. “This plant can really save lives,” says Faustin Njanke, the operations engineer at Kinshasa University Clinics.

In anticipation of further possible pandemic waves of COVID-19, work is now underway on a third plant in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. This unit will then be able to provide high-quality medical oxygen to several other medical facilities located in the east of the country, including the cities of Bukavu, Beni and Butembo, which currently have no such supplies. Other ongoing projects are funded by the World Bank, the International Global Fund, and the Clinton Health Access Initiative.

“Many lives and families have been lost due to the scarcity of medical oxygen during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr Amedy Prosper Djiguimde, WHO Representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While the World Health Organization previously provided dozens of medical capacitors to manage severe cases of the virus in the country, the needs were enormous. This important partnership with UNITAID Productions in Kinshasa, and very soon in Goma, completely changed the situation. ”

In addition to serving COVID-19 patients, the World Health Organization’s increased efforts to provide oxygen support in the DRC will also contribute to treating other diseases, resulting in a much-needed overall strengthening of local health systems.