Access to Oxygen
Many often take oxygen for granted but during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become a valuable and sometimes scarce resource. Coronavirus heavily affects the respiratory system; access to oxygen is crucial for doctors to effectively treat their patients. However, medical oxygen tanks often rely on electricity to function. In regions without stable access to power, this can be a dangerous system.

The FREO2 LPOS System

The Fully Renewable Energy Oxygen Foundation, or FREO2 for short, is an Australia-based health technology research group. It developed a suite of technology innovations that can store and dispense medical oxygen without using electricity. FREO2’s work includes the creation, development and deployment of innovative health technologies to underserved hospitals around the world.

FREO2 began developing its oxygen system in 2011. It was spurred by the dire effects that unreliable access to medical oxygen has on children suffering from pneumonia. Pneumonia is the greatest threat to children’s lives in the world, despite the proven effectiveness of medical oxygen as treatment. With the support of the Ugandan government, FREO2’s medical experts and engineers found a solution: they harnessed the power of water.

How Does the FREO2 LPOS System Work?

The FREO2 Low-Pressure Oxygen Store (LPOS) system uses an oxygen concentrator machine to remove most nitrogen from the surrounding air, leaving nearly pure oxygen which is then stored in a large bag. If the hospital experiences a power outage, the LPOS system uses gravity-powered water from above to push oxygen through its pipes at the correct height to ensure the appropriate amount of pressure for the patient. The LPOS system can provide electricity-free medical oxygen for 8 to 10 hours, allowing under-resourced hospitals to treat their patients more effectively.

At the Mbarara Hospital in southeastern Uganda, doctors struggled to provide uninterrupted access to oxygen to children afflicted with pneumonia and other respiratory infections because of unreliable electricity. FREO2 first used the LPOS system on a six-month-old patient in July 2018 at the Mbarara Hospital in Uganda. FREO2’s LPOS system was crucial to treating his pneumonia and his successful recovery.

Inequality in Access to Oxygen

Innovations such as the FREO2 LPOS system have the capability to save lives in remote regions during the coronavirus pandemic. Unequal access to oxygen is an indicator of stark health inequalities between and within countries. Although medical oxygen has been recognized as essential for decades, there are still many health centers without stable access to it.

After its initial success in 2018, FREO2 plans to dispense the LPOS system at scale to 30,000 clinics in regions across Africa and Southeast Asia where the risk of pneumonia is great. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgency of this issue. To aid health centers during the pandemic, FREO2 has donated eight LPOS systems to rural hospitals in Uganda.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, unequal access to oxygen can be a matter of life or death. The ingenious work of organizations like FREO2 is central in the current global health crisis and beyond. Innovations like the LPOS system have the power to narrow the gap in healthcare access across the world. FREO2’s work could mitigate the effects of health crises at underserved health centers in the future.

Leina Gabra
Photo: Flickr