Kinshasa – In her small office at University Clinics of Kinshasa, nurse Agnès Bisilwala has her eyes trained on a row of large gas cylinders. “In the past, three or four days could go by without enough medical oxygen for our COVID-19 patients in intensive care,” she says. “Many of them were unable to maintain their oxygenation and succumbed to the virus.”
That all changed at the beginning of August this year when a new plant began producing essential supplies of high-quality medical oxygen just metres away from nurse Bisilwala’s office within the premises of the University of Kinshasa, where she has headed the intensive care unit for 21 years.
With financial support from UNITAID, World Health Organization (WHO) has piloted the construction of two medical oxygen production plants in the Democratic Republic of Congo this year.
The plant at the University Clinics of Kinshasa is already producing enough oxygen to fill 88 47.2-litre cylinders every day, more than double the hospital’s typical daily need. The second plant is set to become operational within the Sino-Congolese Friendship Hospital, which is located to the southeast of Kinshasa, in the coming weeks.
These two establishments were chosen to house the new oxygen production plants because of their status as reference hospitals capable of supplying other secondary health facilities, as well as for their ability to manage severe cases.
At the height of the pandemic, both hospitals hosted dedicated treatment centres for COVID-19 patients. However, demand for quality oxygen for those in critical condition soon exceeded the centres’ capacity. “We were using small oxygen concentrators, and it was very difficult to provide enough oxygen for patients in respiratory distress, who can each consume up to ten 50-litre cylinders a day,” says nurse Bisilwala.
A month on from the commissioning of the new plant, Dr Bertain Nsitwa, the project supervisor, reiterates the significant changes it has already brought about. “Before, we bought the oxygen from a factory in Kingabwa, more than 15 km away. The transport costs were exorbitant, and the oxygen level was only 30% to 50%, which sometimes worsened the state of patients’ health. In contrast, the oxygen supplied by the newly built plant has a purity of 92% to 96%,” he says.
By providing higher quality oxygen at a lower cost and in greater quantities, the new facility will help address shortages across Kinshasa, where demand remains high, even as COVID-19 cases are currently on the decline, according to official statistics. “This plant can really save lives,” says Faustin Ngankuey, an engineer in charge of operations at the University Clinics of Kinshasa facility.
In anticipation of potential further COVID-19 pandemic waves, work is now underway on a third factory in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu. This unit would then be able to provide high-quality medical oxygen to many other medical facilities located in the east of the country, including in the cities of Bukavu, Beni and Butembo, which currently have no such supplies. Other projects, funded by the World Bank, the International Global Fund and the Clinton Health Access Initiative are underway.
“Many lives have been lost and families bereaved due to the dearth of medical oxygen during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr Amédée Prosper Djiguimdé, WHO Representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “While WHO previously provided several dozen medical concentrators for the management of severe cases of the virus in the country, the needs were immense. This important partnership with UNITAID for production in Kinshasa, and very soon in Goma, completely changes the situation.”
In addition to serving COVID-19 patients, increased efforts by WHO to provide oxygen support in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will also contribute to the treatment of other diseases, leading to a much-needed overall strengthening of local health systems.