PROFILE: Dr Craig Parker’s new oxygen mask helps save thousands
Mining engineer to medical doctor who wanted to make a difference
Craig Parker, an anaesthetist at East London’s Frere Hospital, is the inventor of the OxERA oxygen mask, which saved thousands during the pandemic and is poised to become a global game-changer.
In early 2020, as Covid wreaked havoc in Europe, Parker, a medical doctor, watched in horror. If developed nations couldn’t cope, what would happen when Covid reached South Africa? “I could see we were going to have a huge oxygen problem,” he says. “And I decided to do something about it.”
He assembled a remote team of 10 doctors, engineers and people with 3D-printing capacity. Parker’s group were not the only ones doing something, but his unusual CV put him on an inside track.
After matriculating in Pietermaritzburg, Parker qualified as a mechanical engineer and spent almost two decades working on mines in South Africa and Zambia. His disillusion with the “rich getting richer” ethos of mining grew until, in 2011, things came to a head. At the age of 39, he made the “crazy” decision to qualify as a medical doctor. After selling his cars and house to make it happen, Parker graduated in 2015 and moved to the Eastern Cape with the goal of giving back.
After careful consultation, Parker’s Covid-response team decided a blower-based BiPap system (pushing air into lungs) was the way to go. A group of five or six people completed a working prototype. While working on the BiPap machine, Parker also made a smaller, cheaper (R1,400) and simpler system in his home workshop: OxERA 1.0.
Everyone in the team expected the BiPap to be more effective. But when the two were put to the test, the OxERA was the clear winner. Though both devices were oxygen efficient, only the OxERA was effective at treating severe pneumonia — and it didn’t even require electricity. “It was a huge win for scalability,” says Parker. “The BiPap system would have been really expensive to produce.”
Doctors talk about the oxygen escalation ladder. At the bottom of the ladder are things like nasal prongs and face masks that don’t require much oxygen but can deliver only low concentrations of oxygen. At the top of the ladder are high-flow nasal oxygen, BiPap and CPap machines, and ventilators. These can deliver high oxygen concentrations, but they require a huge amount of oxygen.
The OxERA is a new device capable of delivering high oxygen concentrations without using vast quantities of oxygen. It manages to do this because of a tightfitting “anaesthetic” mask that minimises oxygen wastage and a Peep valve that enables patients to breathe out against a variable resistance, which prevents their lungs from collapsing.
Peep valves are usually found only in high-end machines such as ventilators. Their inclusion in the OxERA was revolutionary, says Jenny Nash, a family physician who covers the rural Amathole district. Nash tested Parker’s prototypes on Covid patients at the height of the pandemic — with remarkable results. “Patients really responded to it,” says Nash. “And because it required so little oxygen we could use it on everyone who needed it.”
Within months “hundreds” of OxERAs were in use at almost every health-care facility in Nash’s district. And in September 2020 Parker sent the first batch of OxERAs to Kufema, an NGO in Zimbabwe. “The OxERA was incredible,” says Kufema founder Juliet Le Breton. “Of course there were sad stories. But without the OxERA there would have been only sad stories.”
Now, almost three years later, Parker’s emergency response team has developed into a fully fledged social enterprise called Umoya. It is making a few other simple, lifesaving devices (like an intubation ramp and a tray that monitors postpartum blood loss) at affordable prices, and there’s more on the horizon.
In total, more than 14,600 units of the OxERA have been sold/donated across Southern Africa. Sales are on hold while the manufacturing partner, Cape Town-based Gabler Medical, works with the US Food & Drug Administration to get a worldwide licence. At the same time, a team at Wits University is working to formally establish the OxERA’s uses beyond Covid.
“It’s a new kind of device with a really useful role that goes beyond low-income settings with limited oxygen,” says Parker. The OxERA comes into its own in any situation where oxygen is in short supply: when transferring patients in an ambulance, for example, or even when wheeling them around the hospital for an MRI. “Every district clinic and every ambulance should have one,” he says. “And not just in the developing world.”
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