Giving oxygen to the fight against pneumonia

Joe Kiani, CEO of Masimo. Photo by: Jesse Childers / CC BY-NC-ND

Pneumonia kills more children worldwide than any other illness — more than 2 million youngsters die of the acute respiratory infection every year, and yet it is rarely in the headlines, so much so that the World Health Organization calls it the “forgotten killer”.

Last year, the infection accounted for 15 percent of all deaths of children under 5 years old, and these were mostly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. It is more deadly than AIDS, malaria and measles combined when it comes to child deaths, according to WHO figures.

Now a new public-private partnership has been formed to try and tackle the neglected infection, specifically targeting children under 5 and pregnant women. The PPP — known as the United for Oxygen Alliance — is the first consortium working on pneumonia, and has 15 members in total, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nations, PATH, Philips, the Pneumonia Innovations Team, Save the Children, UNICEF and U.S. Agency for International Development.

Masimo, a U.S.-based medical technology firm, is one of the alliance’s co-founders and technical partners, and will be supplying its pulse oximetry technology, which uses sensors to detect low levels of oxygen in the blood which can be an indicator of pneumonia, to health centers throughout Ethiopia, the first country targeted by the alliance.

Ethiopia was chosen as the first country because the government has already made access to medical oxygen a health priority. Furthermore, a recent survey of health centers and hospitals across the country revealed less than half manage oxygen within their facilities and less than 14 percent of staff are trained to operate the technology.

Devex spoke to Masimo’s founder and CEO, Joe Kiani, on the eve of World Pneumonia Day on Nov. 12 to find out more about his company’s technology and the alliance. Here are the highlights of the conversation:

Why is pneumonia such a big issue for Masimo?

Two million children dying of pneumonia should keep everyone awake at night. For a company such as Masimo that can do something about it, it’s a heavy burden but also a challenge. Masimo is in the business of patient care and our mission is to help improve patient outcomes and reduce the cost of care by taking noninvasive monitoring equipment to new sites and applications. So, this is the kind of challenge that not only weighs on us, but excites us and speaks to why we were established.

Pneumonia statistics are startling. I had no idea that pneumonia was killing people, especially children under the age of 5. Sadly, it is an excellent example of the great disparity in the healthcare received in low resource regions versus those in high resource regions.

The U.S.’s success in treating the infection has shown us that three interventions have an incredible impact on treating pneumonia early: 1. pulse oximetry which detects low levels of oxygen in the blood, 2. access to medical oxygen; and 3. antibiotics, only when needed. Rising levels of vaccination of course, have been critical to preventing pneumonia.

At Masimo, we have developed groundbreaking pulse oximetry technology, which is a crucial tool in detecting oxygen levels, and so now we are turning our attention to democratizing that technology.

Tell us more about the Masimo technology and how it helps tackle pneumonia?

When Masimo was founded in 1989, our aim was to build a new kind of pulse oximetry technology that could be used to accurately measure oxygen saturation levels, as well as pulse and respiration levels in patients in situations where it had previously been impossible to do so due to the sensitivity of these devices to motion, blood flow, environmental noise, and sunlight.

The pulse oximetry technology works through a sensor which is placed on one of the patient’s digits, usually the thumb or foot for infants. The device passes two wavelengths of light through the body part which enable it to measure the level of oxygen saturation in the blood, among other things. A normal range would be 97 percent or above, but if the reading is in the low 90s then we know there’s a problem and it could be pneumonia.

Having developed this technology for developed markets, we are now taking on the challenge of adapting it to be more cost effective and durable, so it can be used in developing country contexts.  

We are working on a new model called the “Rad-G,” which is currently undergoing field evaluation in Ethiopia to finalize the final user interface. Rad-G is a small, portable, fully functional handheld device that doesn’t require any other technologies, such as smartphones, for it to work, and is easy to charge.

With this technology, combined with better access to medical oxygen, many of the thousands of deaths caused by pneumonia in Ethiopia could be prevented.

What is Masimo’s role in the PPP?

Masimo’s role in United for Oxygen Alliance involves improving the availability of our pulse oximetry technology in hospitals and health centers across Ethiopia. We will also be helping to develop an effective health screening model to prevent, detect, and treat pneumonia, and will be collaborating on recommendations for sustaining the program through training and education.

What are your short and long term plans for the partnership and its work?

In terms of the timeline, we hope to start evaluating our Rad-G technology in early 2017, with a plan to be deploying it across Ethiopia by the end of the year. Our aim is to do it rapidly, see the benefit and then move on to other countries.

For more Devex coverage on global health, visit Focus On: Global Health 

About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.