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Trip to West Africa Kicks Off SCCM AIRS Project

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Oxygen is essential for human life and has no substitute. Its importance was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic by the many patients who had difficulty breathing. Medical oxygen is used in many different settings, such as intensive care units, operating rooms, delivery rooms, and during emergency transport.

Reliable access to medical oxygen is lacking in many parts of the world, such as parts of western Africa. A new Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM) Global Health program is trying to change that. SCCM recently launched the Africa Infrastructure Relief and Support (AIRS) project to ensure the availability of medical oxygen to patients in the Gambia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. This project is made possible by a $5.5 million grant from Direct Relief and in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Global Alliance of Perioperative Professionals and the Institute of Global Perioperative Care.

An example of oxygen-generating equipment to be installed in Liberia and the Gambia. Photo courtesy of Pacific Consolidated Industries (PCI Gases).

“The AIRS project represents a new exploration, a new global health wing for the Society of Critical Care Medicine,” said SCCM President Vinay M. Nadkarni, MD, MS, FCCM. “This is a unique opportunity for SCCM to shine a light on and help solve some of the most basic problems that face our global patients.” In February, Dr. Nadkarni took part in a diplomatic trip to Ghana, the Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, where he and a team from Johns Hopkins University met with hospital and government leaders to discuss the project.

John B. Sampson, MD, associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is chair of the AIRS project. “Oxygen is something that healthcare professionals in the United States don’t even think about,” Dr. Sampson said. “We turn a knob or push a button and we expect an unlimited supply of oxygen. We take for granted that there’s an unlimited supply.” In countries such as the Gambia and Sierra Leone, there is virtually no medical oxygen supply. Officials in these countries and in Liberia identified the following specific medical oxygen-related needs that the AIRS project plans to support:

  • SCCM President Vinay M. Nadkarni, MD, MS, FCCM (on right), presenting an SCCM international gift to Sierra Leone Minister of Health Honorable Dr. Austin Demby.
    The Gambia: Only one hospital in the country has medical oxygen, so the government and medical community have requested development of an oxygen-generating facility at another hospital.
  • Liberia: Because the country has ongoing oxygen access issues, officials are requesting development of an oxygen-generating facility for a rural hospital. Because of an unstable power grid, the project will develop a solar-based renewable energy system to power the oxygen-generating supply.
  • Sierra Leone: Because the country has existing plans to create several oxygen-generating facilities, officials have requested the development of renewable solar energy because of energy challenges that make use of oxygen generators difficult.

While the projects differ by country, the overall goal is the same—providing reliable access to medical oxygen.


AIRS project leaders are welcomed at the Diaspora African Forum in Ghana to kick off the diplomatic trip.

The first stop on February’s  trip was Ghana, where the team met with staff from the nonprofit Diaspora African Forum (DAF), the first and only diplomatic mission dedicated to the African Diaspora. DAF is endorsed by the African Union with full diplomatic privileges and immunities. “DAF’s vision is to encourage the African Diaspora to not necessarily come back but look back,” said H.E. Dr. Erieka Bennett, founder and head of mission at DAF. “Over the years, we have embarked on projects and initiatives that are geared toward supporting the African Union in bridging the gap between Africa and its diaspora.”

In the Gambia, the AIRS project team met with leaders and staff of the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital, the only teaching hospital in the Gambia. The team inspected the site of the project’s future oxygen installation and reviewed plans to have oxygen piped throughout the hospital, which will make it accessible at any time. “Without oxygen, they can’t provide safe care for their patients,” Dr. Sampson said. “Without oxygen, they can’t provide care for mothers and babies. Without oxygen, they can’t provide safe care in the operating room. This will help the Gambians who are working here improve the quality of care in their hospital.”

In Sierra Leone, the team met with leaders from the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and staff from the Bo Government Hospital, where the application of solar energy will be developed.

Dr. Sampson has been helping improve health systems in Africa for more than two decades. He notes several key components that will influence the project’s success. “For a program like this to succeed, we need to have a team that is sensitive to the healthcare priorities of the country that we’re working with. We need to have a system set up for a proper maintenance culture. We want to see this equipment 10 years from now still working and still delivering care.”


The AIRS Project team presenting an SCCM international gift to leaders in the Gambia. From left to right: SCCM President Vinay M. Nadkarni, MD, MS, FCCM; Diaspora African Forum Ambassador Dr. Erieka Bennett; the Gambia Minister of Health Honorable Dr. Ahmadou Lamin Samateh; First Lady of the Gambia Fatoumatta Bah-Barrow; SCCM AIRS Project Chair John B. Sampson, MD.

Dr. Sampson spent months collaborating with hospital administrators and health officials in each country to learn what type of support was most needed. That is how he discovered that the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital in the Gambia could benefit from having oxygen piped throughout and also needed medical air to optimize respirators. While these components are key, Dr. Sampson believes that what differentiates this project from past projects is its relationship with DAF, which helped the AIRS team garner support from the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). “We have regional support and continental support, and the countries know that their president is looking at this project, the African Union is looking at this project, and even the president of Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is looking at this project.”

A leading physicians from ECOWAS accompanied the AIRS team on the diplomatic trip, as did Dr. Bennett from the DAF, who said, “DAF is honored to be a part of this historic journey. We are confident that the team learned firsthand needs and also became more aware that Africa has her arms open to receive friends and diasporans who are ready to contribute to the development of the continent.”


John Sampson, MD (4th from left), meeting with leaders in Liberia, including Minister of Health of Liberia Honorable Dr. Wilhelmina Jallah (5th from left).

Dr. Sampson called the trip a success, and he is excitedly anticipating the beginning of construction on the Gambia and Sierra Leone projects later in 2023. Dr. Nadkarni is also looking forward to seeing the project’s impact, both short- and long-term. “The AIRS project is collaborative, innovative, and invigorating,” Dr. Nadkarni said. “It demonstrates that people helping people can make a real difference with very basic supplies and training and that, unlike mission work, this transformation can be sustained over time.”



Posted: 4/24/2023 | 0 comments