Solar-powered oxygen delivery system saving lives in Uganda

This SolarThere is a twist in the use of renewable energy; now solar power is being used in saving children’s lives in Africa. Asolar poweared oxygen delivery system created by Michael Hawkes, an assistant professor in the University of Alberta’s Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases is providing concentrated oxygen in hospitals for children suffering from severe pneumonia.

Hawkes and his colleagues came up with the idea of using solar energy. During the day, solar panels supply power to an oxygen concentrator that strips oxygen out of the air. At night, charged batteries from the panels supply the power to the concentrator

The device is the effort of a recently published study in The International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease and is already in use in two hospitals in Uganda.

Solar-powered oxygen is using freely available resources—the sun and air—to treat children with pneumonia in the most remote settings,” said Hawkes. “It’s very gratifying for a pediatrician doing research in a lower-resource setting to fill a clinical gap and save lives. It’s what our work is all about.”

Each year, 900,000 children die of pneumonia worldwide, with most deaths taking place in Africa. Children with severe pneumonia have infected lungs that need concentrated oxygen until antibiotics begin to work. The concentrated oxygen helps overcome a problem with oxygen exchange caused by the lung infection. In Canada, it is available at the bedside in every hospital room. In developing countries like Uganda, it’s harder to come by reliably.

Hawkes recognized the need for a more reliable oxygen source. In low-resource settings, oxygen can be delivered using cylinders that are often in short supply, or concentrators that depend on electricity.

In the hospital you often didn’t have access to oxygen cylinders. So the power goes out and you’re out of luck. We had children that died in front of our eyes,” said Hawkes.

To fund the idea researchers received a Grand Challenges Canada grant, a Government of Canada initiative that supports global health research. The funds were used to set up the systems at the Kambuga and Jinja hospitals.

Next they conducted a larger randomized controlled trial, which showed that solar-powered oxygen delivery works just as well as the conventional method of oxygen delivery using cylinders. The trial officially ended in 2015, but after seeing such strong results, the hospitals continue to use the solar-powered systems.

Hawkes and his team are now working with the Clinton Health Access Initiative in hopes of soon expanding the system’s use to 80 hospitals across Uganda.

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