Costly oximeters

Jun 28 2020

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AS knowledge of Covid-19 grows, our understanding of the infection’s symptoms and the tools to measure these with has simultaneously expanded. Soon after Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic by the WHO, a large part of the messaging on the early signs of the coronavirus focused on three major symptoms: a persistent dry cough, flu-like symptoms and fever. As Covid-19 cases and deaths in New York City escalated, a doctor penned an opinion piece for The New York Times in which he described how many patients could avoid ending up on a ventilator — and even escape death — by measuring their oxygen saturation levels using a simple oximeter at home. The article was widely read and soon, with hospitals at full capacity and cities running out of ventilators, pulse oximeters were flying off the shelves. Later, research suggested that mask-wearing could greatly reduce the rate of transmission.

The demand for these items, especially oximeters, is also high in Pakistan, where citizens fear that because of the growing number of cases, hospitals may become inundated. An Aga Khan University Hospital doctor advised people to buy a pulse oximeter and check oxygen saturation levels at home after every few hours. “Any Covid-19 patient with saturation below 90pc must rush to a hospital. Otherwise, if saturation is fine, they need not worry,” he said in an interview. In this situation, having a pulse oximeter at home to easily check oxygen saturation levels is a reasonable step to stay ahead of the virus. However, the price of the instrument — which was earlier available at pharmacies for Rs4,000 to Rs5,000 — has now doubled. Much like some recovered patients who are profiting during the pandemic by selling their convalescent plasma for hundreds of thousands of rupees, medical supply sellers, too, have hiked up prices of oximeters. Prices for purchasing or renting CPAP machines and oxygen cylinders have also gone up, as have rates of face masks. Sadly, these prices are doubling despite the government giving tax and duty exemptions for the import of many diagnostic items and PPE for a period of three months in order to reduce rates in the domestic market. Authorities must not only crack down on those who are profiteering, but also ensure that this medical equipment is available, as it can prevent patients from falling critically ill. Strict action must be taken against pharmacies and vendors that are minting money at a time when public desperation is high.

Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2020