Bangladesh Faces Stark Shortage of Ventilators to Fight COVID-19, NGO Says

BenarNews staff
200406-BD-ventilator-rohingya-620.jpg A group of Rohingya congregate at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where aid workers are preparing for a potential COVID-19 outbreak, April 1, 2020.

Updated at 3:42 p.m. ET on 2020-04-06

Hospitals across Bangladesh have fewer than 1,500 ventilators, the health minister said Monday, after rights group Save The Children pointed to a severe nationwide shortage of the machines amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The number of ventilators in Bangladeshi hospitals or in the pipeline would average out to about one for nearly every 100,000 people, as the densely populated South Asian nation contends with a public health threat from COVID-19, the London-based humanitarian NGO said.

“We have a shortage of ventilators. These machines are costly and sophisticated,” Health Minister Zahid Maleque told BenarNews.

Bangladesh, a nation of about 165 million people, has “slightly more than 1,475 ventilators” at all of its government-run and private hospitals, he said.

“This is very hard to give an exact number for ventilators as some machines remain in operation and some remain out of order or under maintenance,” Maleque said. “In addition, we have ordered 300 ventilators from European manufacturers. These have been in the pipeline.”

According to the minister, not all patients afflicted with the coronavirus need to be hooked up to these devices, which help patients breathe.

“The elderly patients with severe respiratory problems need ventilators. Ordinary coronavirus patients do not need ventilators,” he said.

But Bangladeshi health experts contacted by BenarNews on Monday said these machines were essential for treating patients suffering from COVID-19, because the virus attacks people’s lungs.

“[V]entilators actually provide alternative support to the respiratory system of the COVID-19 patients. In most of the cases, ventilators are a must for treating COVID-19 patients,” said Dr. Md Nazrul Islam, a professor of virology at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU), a state-run institution.

There is a shortage of ventilators nationwide, and not all intensive care units at hospitals are equipped with those machines, he said. The hospital associated with the university where he teaches is considered one of the best centers of medicine in Bangladesh, but it has only 30 ventilators, he said.

“We have to increase the number of ventilators as the number of patients continues to grow,” Islam said.

On Monday, Bangladeshi health authorities reported the single largest daily spike to date in confirmed COVID-19 cases, saying 35 new cases were detected, bringing the national total to 123. Three new fatalities from the virus were also recorded, bringing the official national death toll to 12.

Early in the day, Save The Children warned that hospitals in Bangladesh may not be able to cope under pressure from the pandemic as it eventually strains the country’s supply of ventilators.

“At present it is difficult for Bangladesh to meet the expected surge in demand for ventilators to help respond to the COVID-19 outbreak,” Shamim Jahan, the NGO’s deputy country director in Bangladesh, said in a news release issued by Save The Children.

“We are in this together – no single country can confront COVID-19 alone, even the richest and most powerful among us. It is therefore essential that world leaders – in particular the G20 countries – commit to a coordinated global plan under-pinned by debt relief. We also urge the Bangladesh government to engage the public and private sectors urgently to secure ventilators for COVID-19 patients,” Jahan said.

‘No ventilators in Cox’s Bazar’

The densely populated southeastern district of Cox’s Bazar – home to sprawling camps that house more than 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar – is particularly vulnerable to the viral outbreak, Save The Children said.

“The acute scarcity of ventilators in the district means lives will be lost when COVID-19 starts to spread more widely in the community,” The NGO said.

But in fact, according to Dr. Mahbubur Rahman, head of the district’s health office, “there are no ventilators in Cox’s Bazar.”

“We detected one coronavirus patient and referred the patient to Dhaka where she completely recovered,” he told BenarNews. “But we feel that Cox’s Bazar hospitals should have an adequate number of ventilators.”

Rahman said the victim was a Bangladeshi woman who had returned from Saudi Arabia. So far, no Rohingya have tested positive for COVID-19.

“But we have already requested that authorities allocate ventilators for Cox’s Bazar hospitals to meet an emergency,” he said.

Meanwhile, at the national level, help could be coming from Bangladeshi businesses assisted by a major international manufacturer of ventilators.

In a Facebook post on March 31, the state minister for information and communication technology said Medtronic, an Ireland-based company led by a Bangladeshi man, had released software source codes and hardware designs to Bangladesh’s government.

Minister Zunaid Ahmed Palak said local companies Walton, MyOne, Celltron, a2i Innovation Lab, MIST, Minister Electronics, Startup Bangladesh and iDEA were using that information to produce ventilators.

Worldwide more than 70,500 people have died and nearly 1.3 million have been infected from the coronavirus, according to the latest data compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

“Without access to intensive care facilities in Cox’s Bazar, patients in critical condition may have to be transported to neighboring Chittagong district 150 kilometers [93.2 miles] away, further increasing the risk to them and others," said Athena Rayburn, the Rohingya Response Advocacy manager for Save The Children.

"Ventilators and people trained to operate them are urgently needed to protect the host communities and  Rohingya refugees to avert a humanitarian disaster if we start to see community-level transmission of COVID-19. Children are at serious risk of contracting the virus, but also of being orphaned or neglected if family members become infected or die,” she said.


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