WHO / Andrew Quilty
COVID-19 vaccines arrive in Afghanistan via COVAX. On 24 March 2021, a nurse working at Shaidayee Hospital in Herat, Afghanistan, treats a patient with oxygen
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    Medicinal Oxygen 

    Oxygen is a life-saving essential medicine with no substitution. Healthcare professionals use oxygen to treat respiratory illnesses like  COVID-19 and pneumonia. Oxygen is also essential for surgery and trauma. Vulnerable groups like the elderly, pregnant women and newborns need oxygen therapy in regular basis. 

    Despite being an essential medicine, oxygen is a complex product. It needs to be produce by a medical device or Industrial plant. Oxygen also requires a whole system to safely reach patients.

    Due to their complexity, access to oxygen meets many challenges on: availability, quality, affordability, management, supply, human resources capacity and safety. In face of these challenges, the WHO continuously develops resources and tools to overcome them.


    Surveys in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have found that fewer than half of all health facilities have uninterrupted access to oxygen. It has been reported that lack of access to reliable oxygen supplies contributes to preventable deaths, particularly in LMICs. For example, it has been estimated that up to 122 000 deaths from childhood pneumonia could be prevented annually with the strengthening of oxygen supplies. Numerous studies show that oxygen access is a global problem. For example, a recent study found that among facilities treating respiratory infections in sub-Saharan Africa, only 1 in 5 had oxygen in Mauritania and 1 in 10 in Niger. Surveys by the United States Agency for International Development found similar situations for countries in South America and South Asia. A serious concern at any time, the global medical oxygen problem has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

    Despite being an essential medicine, producing oxygen that is safe for patient use is a complex process since it requires the devices and systems needed to deliver oxygen to patients, ranging from pulse oximeters to ventilators, and health workers that are trained to use such devices effectively. However daunting, the investment of time and resources required to meet oxygen supply demand is worth it. The support to the urgent scale-up of medicinal oxygen will save lives by improving care for people with COVID-19, severe pneumonia and other conditions needing. oxygen therapy.

    WHO Response

    WHO is continuously updating guidance on the clinical use of oxygen for different diseases and health conditions. 

    WHO’s efforts include the development of technical specifications, the development of the foundations of medical oxygen systems and the provision of technical and operational support to Member States.

    The purpose of technical specifications is to increase access to quality products. It also aims to ensure the supply of oxygen, in low-resource settings. These efforts aim to support Member States’ Ministries of Health by: 

    1. Ensuring oxygen supply is readily available; and 
    2. Highlighting the importance of appropriate selection, procurement, maintenance, and use of medical devices.

    When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in 2020, the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator was created, with two objectives: the rapid development of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics; and equitable access to these tools. Under the ACT Accelerator, the Oxygen Emergency Taskforce was launched, in partnership with WHO, to assess oxygen needs in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), support oxygen-related funding requests, procure oxygen products, and increase access to oxygen in LMICs. 

    Other tools available to support increasing access to oxygen includes:


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