HOUSTON, Texas. (Ivanhoe Newswire) — Worldwide, premature birth is the leading cause of death for children under five years of age. It is especially devastating in developing countries where people lack access to the high-priced technology to save their baby’s life. Now, professors and students at Rice University are working on developing a nursery of the future, where high-tech, life-saving medical technology is designed for a fraction of the cost, saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of babies every year. Here’s how they are testing out their designs in Malawi, Africa, where nearly 20 percent of babies are born prematurely.
The cries of dozens of premature babies echo in this neonatal unit in Malawi, Africa, but underneath that is a more reassuring sound: the steady hum of a life-saving CPAP machine.
It’s a machine that would cost more than $6,000 in the U.S., but a team of engineering students at Rice University designed this one for only $400.
Maria Oden, PhD, a professor of engineering at Rice University told Ivanhoe, “If we can provide support for physicians and nurses who are caring for babies in this environment we can have a real impact on mortality of the newborn.”
Oden is one of the engineering professors leading students in an effort to create a so-called “Nursery of the Future” with a focus on designing low-cost medical technologies that hospitals in developing countries need most.
Oden explained, “This care really focuses on a small number of areas: breathing, warmth, basic medically testing, hydration; so really basic needs like that.”
Sarah Hooper, an undergraduate student at Rice University, detailed, “Our device warms up the air for them to body temperature so they don’t have to expend any extra energy to warm up the air.”
Another undergraduate student, Renata Wettermann, said, “They can just focus on growing and developing normally.”
Undergrads like Hooper and Wettermann design their projects in class, then fly to Malawi to test them.
“Being able to actually go and observe the kind of daily practices really gave us a much better insight into what sort of devices succeed,” said Hooper.
Students and professors believe they can develop a nursery with complete life-saving technologies for $10,000, much less than the cost of just one ventilator in the U.S.
Professors have identified 17 technologies for essential newborn care. So far, nine of them are in development at Rice University, including an apnea monitor for premature babies and a device that simplifies the delivery of intravenous medication and requires no electricity.
Contributors to this news report include: Jessica Sanchez, Field Producer; Roque Correa, Editor; Rusty Reed, Videographer.
NURSERY OF THE FUTURE
BACKGROUND: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every 10 infants in 2014 was affected from preterm birth in the United States. It is also the number one cause of death in infants. The earlier the baby is born, the higher the risks are for disability or death. Common problems among premature babies, according to the CDC, include:
- Breathing problems
- Feeding difficulties
- Cerebral palsy
- Developmental delay
- Difficulties with vision
- Hearing loss
The Mayo Clinic says risk factors include: having a previous premature birth, having twins, triplets or other multiples, an interval of less than six months between pregnancies, if conceived through vitro fertilization, issues with the uterus, cervix or placenta, smoking, poor nutrition, not gaining enough weight throughout the pregnancy, certain infections (especially of the amniotic fluid and lower genital tract), specific chronic conditions (such as high blood pressure and diabetes), stress, multiple miscarriages or abortions, and physical injury or trauma.
BEYOND TRADITIONAL BORDERS: Beyond Traditional Borders at Rice University is a hands-on engineering design and education program founded by Richards-Kortum and Oden. They also mentor the students along the design process. Every summer this organization sends several participants to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital to test their designs under pediatric specialists’ supervision. One 2014 study conducted at the hospital revealed the $400 student designed breathing system, Pumani, increased the survival rate of newborns with severe respiratory illness from 44 percent to 71 percent. This invention, replacing the $6,000 CPAP machine, is now at every government hospital in Malawi. Among the projects for future study are Autosyp (a device that requires no electricity and simplifies delivery of intravenous medication) and BreathAlert (an apnea monitor for babies born prematurely).
MORE FROM THE EXPERT: The “Nursery of the Future” project underwent a name change within the past few weeks. The project is now called NEST, which stands for “Neonatal Essential Solutions and Technologies.” The project itself has not changed. It the same as the one featured under the name “Nursery of the Future” in UNICEF’s 2015 annual report: http://sowc2015.unicef.org/stories/oden-the-nursery-of-the-future/
This device, which is called Pumani, is now commercially available and used in more than 20 countries, including Malawi. See: http://hadleighhealthtechnologies.com/impact/
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