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Ethiopia Races to Bolster Ventilator Stockpile for Coronavirus Fight

In four years as a doctor in Ethiopia, Rediet Libanos has used a mechanical ventilator just once: on a patient who suffered a haemorrhagic stroke a few months ago.

But as the country braces for a potential surge in coronavirus, the 28-year-old and many of her colleagues are scrambling to master the workings of the breathing machines, which buy time for critically-ill patients.

During a training this week in Addis Ababa, Rediet and six other doctors got a refresher on how to optimise oxygen volume and pressure for patients whose lungs are failing, practicing first on a green rubber dummy organ before visiting clinics to see ventilators in action.

Though Ethiopia has reported only 29 cases of COVID-19, two of them critical, Rediet expects the country will soon see an onslaught of patients for whom ventilation could mean the difference between life and death.

“I will be on the front lines of that, so I need to be skilled in how to use this machine,” she told AFP.

Yet even as doctors study up on ventilation techniques, Ethiopia’s government — like others in Africa — is confronting a stark ventilator shortage that could hobble its COVID-19 response.

In a country of more than 100 million people, just 54 ventilators — out of around 450 total — had been set aside for COVID-19 patients as of this week, said Yakob Seman, director general of medical services at the health ministry.

By comparison, the US state of New York, the current centre of the pandemic, has said it could need tens of thousands of ventilators for a population of around 20 million.

The Ethiopian health ministry’s own “worst-case scenario” modelling predicts the country will require around 1,500 ventilators for COVID-19 patients by the end of April, Yakob said.

With producers overwhelmed by orders from around the globe, it’s not at all clear how this gap will be bridged, he said.

“I’m really worried about a shortage,” Yakob said. “This is not because of the commitment of the government or lack of will, but because of lack of resources.”

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