Low blood oxygen increases risk of death in sick children

An Australian-led research project has indicated that low blood oxygen levels increase risk of death in sick children by nearly eight times. Murdoch Children’s Research Institute paediatrician, Dr, Hamish Graham, led the study that documented the oxygen levels of over 23,000 children admitted across 12 hospitals in Nigeria.  

“Your blood oxygen level is the amount of oxygen carried by red blood cells from the lungs to [the] rest of the body — low blood oxygen damages cells and can lead to death,” Dr Graham explains. “Our study found that one in four newborns and one in 10 children in hospital had low blood oxygen, and these children were eight times more likely to die than those with normal blood oxygen.”

Low blood oxygen levels often impact children experiencing pneumonia and significant birth trauma as well as newborn infants and those born prematurely.

Dr Graham explains that pulse oximeters, which accurately measure blood oxygen levels, are commonly utilised in Australia. However, hospitals located in low and middle-income countries are often not equipped with good-quality devices.

Dr Graham hopes that the findings from the study will encourage policy-makers and healthcare workers in low and middle-income countries to consider increasing the use of oxygen therapy and oxygen measuring instruments. This will have a huge impact on sick children.

“Our modellings suggest that better use of oxygen monitoring and therapy in the 12 highest mortality countries in the world could prevent up to 148,000 child pneumonia deaths annually,” he said. “Our study also suggests there are thousands more children and neonates with illnesses besides pneumonia that could also benefit.”

The Centre for International Child Health – which is based at the University of Melbourne – is leading the development and implementation of solar-powered oxygen delivery systems hospitals located in Papua New Guinea and Nigeria.  

Dr. Graham also notes that training nurses to measure and supply oxygen are simple technologies that have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives.

“In sub-Sahara Nigeria, one in 10 children dies before their fifth birthday and the biggest killer of Nigerian children is pneumonia. Nigerian children make up one-sixth of under-five pneumonia deaths globally. The first step to preventing these deaths is detecting low blood oxygen,” Dr. Graham said.

Researchers from the University College Hospital in Nigeria, University of Melbourne, The Royal Children’s Hospital, University of Ibadan in Nigeria, Ashdown Consultants in the UK, World Health Organisation in Switzerland and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the US also contributed to the findings.