By Adam Lewis
This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.
Mount Kilimanjaro stands nearly 20,000 feet above sea level, its snow-capped peaks providing a stark contrast against northern Tanzania’s otherwise equatorial backdrop. As Africa’s tallest mountain, it draws tens of thousands of climbers a year: some of whom reach the summit successfully, many of whom must stop short because of low levels of oxygen in their blood (the peak’s atmospheric pressure offers about half the breathable air as at sea level). The irony, however, is that in Tanzania – and nearly every country in sub-Saharan Africa – you don’t need to climb a mountain to reach an environment with too little oxygen; you just have to walk into a hospital.
Oxygen is one of the most frequently-required medical interventions in the world, yet it remains in critically short supply in low-resource hospitals. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that less than half of health facilities in Africa have reliable access to medical-grade oxygen – let alone the trained staff, supplies and infrastructure to deliver it.
Without medical oxygen, health providers are unable to treat critically ill patients with low levels of oxygen in their blood – an effect of conditions such as trauma, obstetric complications, heart failure and respiratory diseases like pneumonia, a leading cause of death for children globally. As one Tanzanian doctor recently explained to me, oxygen is essential throughout the entire hospital because low blood-oxygen levels – known as hypoxemia – can be both ubiquitous and, in many cases, fatal.