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Virus patients gasp for air as hospitals lack oxygen supply

Health & Science
 A man offloads a medical oxygen cylinder at Nakuru Nursing home. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

A 58-year-old teacher experienced shortness of breath and was rushed to Samburu County Hospital for treatment. 

The teacher, who tested positive for Covid-19 last month, was in need of an intensive care unit (ICU) bed for specialised care. But at the facility, there was no oxygen, so she was referred to the Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital (PGH) in Nakuru.

Her experience mirrors the anguish of patients diagnosed with a critical form of Covid-19.

Simon Kirathe from Busara village in Nyandarua, recalled how he lost a relative who failed to access oxygen in a hospital after he developed breathing difficulties.

The man was admitted at Nyahururu Hospital but was later referred to Othaya Level Six in Nyeri.

“I watched my relative gasp for air, but there was no oxygen. It took him longer to get a referral and access oxygen. Having the essential commodity might have saved his life," said Kirathe.

Last month, during a summit with the Council of Governors, President Uhuru Kenyatta directed counties to ensure there are sufficient medical oxygen supplies in hospitals to treat patients.

 Patient with an oxygen mask.

Scary and sad

But The Standard has independently established that a number of county hospitals do not have a sufficient supply of medical oxygen. Samburu County Hospital, for instance, has five ICU beds but lacks the essential gas. Most patients in need of ICU services are referred to PGH Nakuru or Nairobi.

A doctor at the facility who requested anonymity for fear of being victimised said at least two patients have died at the hospital after they failed to access oxygen.

“It is scary and sad that people are admitted but they end up dying simply because of a lack of oxygen,” said the doctor. “Oxygen is supplied at the ICU in cylinders, but it is not sufficient. This is the main cause of death at the isolation unit.”

The county does not have an oxygen processing plant and gets its supplies from a private oxygen processing plant in Nakuru. Efforts to get comments from Health Executive Stephen Lekupe were futile, as he did not pick up our calls or respond to our text messages.

Laikipia and Nyandarua counties also do not have sufficient supplies of medical oxygen, while the Covid-19 isolation centre at Mogotio Sub-County Hospital in Baringo is supplied with oxygen in cylinders from the Kabarnet oxygen processing plant. Eldama Ravine, a Level Four hospital, is also supplied with oxygen in cylinders, mostly for use in theatre.

A source told The Standard that due to a shortage in supply of the commodity, patients are referred to Nakuru, Kericho and Eldoret.

Oxygen was classified by WHO in 2017 as an essential medicine for the treatment of hypoxemia (low oxygen levels in the blood), and was listed as such in the 2019 Kenya Essential Medicines List as one of the six inhalational medicines that should be available from the dispensary level.

Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Council (KMPDC) report of October noted that at least 70 per cent of 47 counties have an oxygen plant. The most common supply method noted by the council was oxygen supplied in cylinders.

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