When patients in Canadian hospitals need oxygen, they get it. Not so in many low-income countries, where supplies are limited, electricity is unreliable and just to refill an oxygen tank can mean a long drive over difficult roads.
“We take all this for granted,” says Bev Bradley, a PhD student who is investigating how to generate and deliver medical oxygen in low-income countries. Oxygen is crucial, among other things, for treating pneumonia – the number 1 killer of children under five in the world.
Bradley, who has been a member of Engineers Without Borders since 2003, has witnessed the dilemma of having to ration oxygen. She has visited the Gambia three times – including once this summer for her doctoral research with U of T’s Centre for Global Engineering. In West Africa, about one in five childhood deaths are caused by pneumonia.
Hospitals in developing countries typically rely on oxygen cylinders, which are heavy, can explode and are laborious to refill, or on oxygen-generating machines, which require a steady power supply that may not be available. Bradley and a team of Gambian technicians have developed a battery-powered version of this machine that can last up to 20 hours without grid power.
For her thesis, Bradley hopes to research several other options, including solar-powered oxygen generators. But she notes that a one-size-fits-all solution won’t work. “It’s about understanding the local situation.”
The Centre for Global Engineering was founded in 2009 to bring together faculty and students to tackle global engineering challenges such as improved sanitation and cleaner water. While the centre’s focus is on the developing world, it aims to devise better, more sustainable solutions for all. Addressing problems in low-income countries “definitely forces you to be more creative,” says Bradley.