Geneva - Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, pneumonia killed nearly one million children under five every year. Oxygen access is a vital component in the fight to improve global health - and the challenges around provision in low-income countries have never been greater.
The problem is complex: oxygen therapies are usually expensive, designed to be implemented in high-resource healthcare settings on the premise of a readily available electricity supply. There are challenges at every stage of the process for low-income countries.
But there are also innovative solutions in the pipeline. Since 2006, Unitaid has been at the forefront of transforming ideas into high-impact improvements in global health for people in resource-limited settings.
Now thanks to a $1.4 million investment from Unitaid's new funding mechanism, UnitaidExplore, Vayu Global Health Innovations - a Boston-based "bench top to bedside' entity - will take forward development of its bCPAP and oxygen blender devices.
The potentially game-changing devices enable babies to access oxygen therapy without the need for an electricity supply or a compressed air tank.
Bubble CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) is a non-invasive way of ventilating newborns who are struggling to breathe. The oxygen blender prevents the eye, lung and brain damage associated with giving young children a pure oxygen supply.
This has implications for treating young children with pneumonia, COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases in settings with resource constraints - and crucially, increasing survival rates from these life-threatening illnesses.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the devices also have the potential to ease pressure on the limited number of ventilators in low-income countries - particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa - by preventing the diversion of adult ventilators away from COVID patients.
This funding builds on work already undertaken by Unitaid in 2019, which saw $43 million invested to kick start the scale-up of pulse oximetry in primary care centres across nine low and middle-income countries. Pulse oximeters are a vital diagnostic tool in helping identify children in need of referral for lifesaving care, including oxygen therapy.
Unitaid Director of Strategy, Janet Ginnard says: "We see huge potential with Vayu and think these technologies can be game-changers for oxygen provision to babies. Access to oxygen is critical and we are excited to partner with Vayu in this exciting new initiative, advancing tools to save lives."
Dr Thomas Burke from Vayu Global Health Innovations says: "Given its disruptive nature, the Vayu bCPAP device can make high-quality, non-invasive ventilation support affordable and accessible for every newborn and infant on earth that needs it. This funding from Unitaid will support completion of engineering, manufacturing and FDA approval tasks, and enable a feasibility study at the national hospitals of Kenya and Tanzania."
UnitaidExplore: innovations to increase access to oxygen therapy