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Low-Cost Devices Keeping Babies Warm or Cool in Developing Countries

by Petti Fong

We get cold, we put on a sweater. Too hot? Take off a layer. Temperature regulation for most of us means just adding or shedding clothing. But it’s a much more serious situation for babies, particularly newborns. Hot and cold could mean the difference between life and death.

Brain damage and disorders such as cerebral palsy can occur when babies are deprived of oxygen before birth. Some of the most common causes for oxygen to be cut off from foetuses are when there’s a knot of the umbilical cord or a problem develops in the womb with the placenta.

Extended cooling, though, can prevent brain injury. But with equipment costing $12,000, such measures are not always an option in developing countries.

Baby cooling on the cheap

A new low-tech, low-cost device created by Johns Hopkins University students that is made from everyday household items could be an answer. Called Cooling Cure, the device can lower a newborn’s temperature by about six degrees Fahrenheit for three days, the optimal amount that has been shown to significantly reduce the possibility of brain damage after oxygen is cut off.

In the latest issue of the journal Medical Devices: Evidence and Research, a dozen biomedical engineering students and their advisors reported that their prototype had successfully lowered the temperature in mammalian animal tests.

The $40 prototype is made of a clay pot, plastic-lined burlap basket, sand, an instant icepack made of urea powder, temperature sensors, a microprocessor and two AAA batteries.

Adding water is all it takes to activate the device. The water causes a chemical reaction that draws heat away from the upper part of the basket that cradles the newborn while the batteries power the microprocessor and temperature sensors. The device can extract heat from inside to outside and maintain the inner pot at 62 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 24 hours.

If an LED signalling light flashes red, the baby is too hot. Blue means the baby is too cold. Green is the signal for the right temperature.

“The students came up with a neat device that’s easy for non-medical people to use. It’s inexpensive and user-friendly,” Dr. Michael Johnston, a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine paediatric neurology professor who advised the undergraduate team, said in a statement.

Better solutions for maintaining baby’s temperature

For the past 25 years, Johnston has been studying ways to protect a newborn’s brain, including the use of costly hospital cooling units that keep brain cells from dying after an oxygen deficiency. Several years ago, while visiting Egypt, he learned that local doctors were using window fans or chilled water bottles in an inadequate effort to treat oxygen-deprived babies.

Johnston’s observation demonstrates the reality that maintaining proper temperature in newborns is a complicated medical issue that is often addressed with low-tech means. On the tech front, a number of recent inventions are starting to fill the void left in developing countries where medical interventions are limited by the cost of complex medical devices.

Nonprofit firm Embrace, founded by researchers from Stanford and Harvard, has developed a $25 infant warmer that works without the need for a steady supply of electricity. It fulfills a critical need for incubators in areas without access to the expensive devices. One of the major causes of death and illness in infants is hypothermia—when the core body temperature drops below 96 degrees Fahrenheit.

Co-founder Jane Chen said in a TED talk that 20 million babies are born unable to regulate their own temperatures every year and 4 million of them die annually.

“The ones that do survive grow up with severe long-term health problems,” she said. “Imagine many of these problems can be prevented if these babies can be just kept warm.”

Traditional incubators require electricity and can cost up to $20,000, making them a rare device in rural areas of developing nations. Some desperate ad-hoc measures used have included strapping hot water bottles to the baby’s body or putting them under lights.

GE, the sponsor of this magazine, has a global partnership with Embrace to distribute the warmer.

It looks like a tiny sleeping bag, but one that can generate heat for a baby swathed inside. A compartment in the warmer has a sealed pouch of wax that can be melted by hot water. The wax heats up to human body temperature within 20 minutes.

A bright solution

Another incubator solution may come from car parts.

Medical devices are routinely discarded or go unused in developing nations because few people are trained to fix them or they lack parts to repair broken units.

Cars are one of the few technologies that are reliably repaired in rural communities. The inventors behind NeoNurture concluded that if people knew how to fix a car, they could figure out how to fix an incubator.

The design of NeoNurture, based on concepts and prototypes developed by students and scientists at MIT, Stanford, the University of Arizona and the Rhode Island School of Design, leverages the existing supply chain of the auto industry.

The prototype is made of a sealed-beam headlight that serves as a heating element, a dashboard fan to circulate warmed air, turn signal lights and a door chime that act as alarms, and a motorcycle battery and car cigarette lighter that provide backup power during incubator transport and power outages. A car window latches on to the unit as the cover.

According to the creators, the unit is composed of two distinct parts: the bassinet and the base. The bassinet is detachable from the base and a surrounding handle allows two people to easily carry the newborn up and down stairs and over uneven ground — important features in the context of a rural hospital where infants often need to be carried long distances between the delivery room and the newborn intensive care unit.

All of these new devices, built to operate within the prevailing conditions of developing societies, are giving newborns a shot at life—one they would otherwise be robbed of by cold or heat.

Top Image: Happy warm baby via Shutterstock.

P-S Fong, a graduate from Columbia University’s School of Journalism, is a science and technology writer based in Vancouver, Canada, specializing in technological changes in the resource sector.

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