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Oxygen appeal as virus grips Malawi, in East Africa

12 February 2021


Residents buy ginger in Thylolo, Malawai, last month. Natural remedies are being used to boost the immune system and treat the virus

Residents buy ginger in Thylolo, Malawai, last month. Natural remedies are being used to boost the immune system and treat the virus

A CRITICAL shortage of oxygen in rural areas of Malawi, in East Africa, is contributing to a rising death rate in the country from Covid-19.

After experiencing very few cases last year, the country has had a spike in cases since January — in part because of the South African variant of the disease. It now has 27,000 cases and nearly 900 deaths. A national emergency was declared in December.

In the few hospitals that exist in rural areas, there are no ventilators or intensive-care beds, and, as the UK director of the charity Medic Malawi, Tom Hunt, discovered, a critical shortage of oxygen, which is one of the few interventions available in Malawi for severely ill Covid patients.

The charity discovered that there was no oxygen to be had only when one of the doctors in its own hospital, St Andrew’s, fell ill with the virus, and had to be taken to the district hospital in Katsungu, where there are eight beds to serve about one million people.

When he arrived, there was one cylinder of oxygen left for the whole hospital, says the Dean of Blackburn, the Very Revd Peter Howell-Jones, who chairs Medic Malawi. Refilling each cylinder with oxygen costs £70, and each patient on oxygen needs two or three a day.

MEDIC MALAWIOxygen cylinders are in demand

Mr Hunt drove miles in search of oxygen, eventually finding three cylinders, bringing them back to the hospital, and saving the doctor’s life.

He has now teamed up with the local MP, Madalitso Kazombo, to set up the Kasungu Oxygen Task Force, to try to find an immediate answer to the oxygen shortage and also a longer-term solution. They hope to raise enough to set up a production unit to supply oxygen to hospitals and medical centres in the region.

Mr Hunt said: “The critical shortage of oxygen across northern Malawi, and in particular Kasungu district, is a tragedy. Despite all the technology at our disposal in many parts of our world in 2021, to hear stories of patients dying needlessly because oxygen was just not available to help them when they needed it most is a tragedy. This simply should not be the case.

”We can send people into space, we can visit the deepest parts of the ocean, but we can’t enable rural hospitals in Malawi to access enough oxygen for those desperately ill during the world’s greatest public-health crisis. Things have to change.”

Blackburn Cathedral is one of several cathedrals serving as a vaccination centre, and is vaccinating nearly 1000 people a day, Mr Howell-Jones said.

“Seeing the people queuing here for a free vaccine, and contrasting that with the absence of medical care in parts of Malawi, has brought a very sharp focus to the appeal,” he said.

The UK Government has promised Malawi 1.5 million doses of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, which should arrive next month, but it could take many months to reach remote areas such as Kasungu.

To support the oxygen appeal, visit medicmalawi.org.

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