Saving lives with medical oxygen in Kenya

Health care worker reaching for oxygen tank (USAID/Lameck Ododo)
The U.S. helped train nurse Sandra Karimi and other health care workers in Kenya to provide therapeutic oxygen. Above, Karimi works at Wangige Hospital in Kenya October 27, 2021. (USAID/Lameck Ododo)

For Sandra Karimi, a nurse at Wangige Hospital in Kenya, treating patients during the COVID-19 pandemic felt like working in a war zone.

When she first encountered COVID-19 patients gasping for air, she froze. “I was scared, honestly,” says Karimi, who works in Kiambu County, Kenya. “We were all scared.”

2 health care workers wearing masks and looking at each other (USAID/Lameck Ododo)
Dr. Mary Gichagua and Karimi work at Wangige Hospital in Kenya October 27, 2021. (USAID/Lameck Ododo)

Patients risked brain damage, or worse, from lack of oxygen. Yet like many other health care workers in low- and middle-income countries, Karimi lacked sufficient training to determine when patients needed oxygen and how to properly administer oxygen therapy.

Wangige and other midlevel hospitals referred patients to specialized facilities that were already overburdened.

Health care worker sitting on hospital bed and smiling (USAID/Lameck Odod)
Karimi (USAID/Lameck Odod)

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is helping Karimi and other nurses at dozens of other health facilities in Kenya save lives. Through its Oxygen Ecosystem program, USAID funded training for 538 health care workers at 48 Kenyan facilities to provide therapeutic oxygen, control infections and manage burnout.

After the training, patient referrals to specialized hospitals fell by more than one-third. And the time between when a patient arrived at a hospital and received medical oxygen dropped from 40 minutes to 13 minutes. Specialized hospitals returned to focusing on the most critical patients.

The trainings in Kenya are one way the United States is improving patients’ access to therapeutic oxygen. USAID is investing $50 million to expand global access to medical oxygen, enabling hundreds of thousands of patients to receive lifesaving oxygen each year.

The United States is also the single-largest donor to The Global Fund, which has provided more than $600 million to increase access to medical oxygen for patients in over 80 countries.

In Kenya, USAID has provided $54 million in direct COVID-19 relief, including $8.4 million to support COVID-19 vaccinations.

Kiambu County Executive for Health Dr. Joseph Murega says training nurses at midlevel hospitals on the “use of oxygen judiciously worked so well that other hospitals could refer patients to them.”

Nurse taking notes next to a patient (USAID/Lameck Ododo)
Karimi treats a patient at Wangige Hospital in Kenya October 27, 2021. (USAID/Lameck Ododo)

Karimi says, “It is fulfilling to know that I can save even just one life, thanks to the training from the Oxygen Ecosystem project from USAID.”

A version of this story previously appeared on USAID’s Exposure.