In June, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its Model List of Essential Medicines and List of Essential Medicines for Children to include an additional indication for oxygen therapy, specifying that it should be used to treat patients with dangerously low levels of oxygen in the blood (hypoxemia). The new indication is the result of a proposal led by my organization, PATH (an international nonprofit organization leading in global health innovation), in collaboration with partners and expert advisers. It helps prioritize oxygen therapy for patients with this dangerous condition.
The decision—and the need for it—may surprise those living in high-resource settings. After all, if you’ve ever been treated in a hospital in a high-income country, you will find access to oxygen therapy literally everywhere—as common as the air around you. But in low- and middle-income countries, fewer than half of health facilities have uninterrupted access to oxygen therapy, an essential treatment for those who are acutely or chronically oxygen starved.
Having worked for more than 30 years researching and developing vaccines, and ensuring that these lifesaving tools are available and used appropriately where needed most, it is clear that tackling barriers to equitable access to lifesaving treatments is fundamental to achieving optimal public health impact.
Access to a reliable and consistent source of oxygen therapy really can make the difference between life and death, especially for the most vulnerable: newborns, young children, and pregnant women. The expanded indication could have a significant impact on a wide range of medical conditions, including premature birth, obstetric emergencies, and pneumonia, which is the leading worldwide cause of death from infectious disease in children younger than age five.
The impact of this new global guidance could be substantial. Increased access to oxygen therapy could reduce childhood pneumonia-related mortality by at least…