Here are some shocking figures I came across recently. 20 million low-birth-weight and premature babies are born each year across the globe. Of them, 450 die every hour. And one of the biggest killers is hypothermia – these babies simply cannot control their body temperature.
In the developed world we take it for granted that we have access to great acute-care medicine. In an emergency, most of us are pretty close to a hospital or at least have access to transportation that could get us there reasonably quickly. But for many in the developing world their rural location means access to a hospital is difficult if not impossible.
Even for those lucky enough to be able to access a hospital, there’s no guarantee that there will be a working infant incubator available. Many of these machines have been donated by western benefactors, but it transpires that many of these now lie unused – it can cost up to $40k a year to keep one of these sophisticated machines properly maintained. That’s assuming they were switched on in the first place – some of these units have manuals in other languages, and the hospitals simply don’t know how to use them.
With such a clear problem a number of groups have set about trying to do something about the issue. The first solution I came across is a great demonstration of thinking differently about a problem. The Massachusetts team at Design That Matters looked at the kinds of environment in these developing countries and came up with NeoNurture.
They realised that whilst developing countries might not be best equipped to maintain and fix highly complex medical equipment, what they could do was run cars. Oddly, people seem able to keep their cars running in the most remote corners of the globe; partly through the mechanical simplicity of many of these vehicles, partly through ingenuity – and all miles away from their nearest main-dealer garage!
So Design That Matters built a $1,000 incubator that capitalised on that capability. The incubator gets its heat from a pair of car headlamps. If the temperature varies too much then health staff are notified by a car alarm. And when power is lost to the unit, or the whole thing needs to be transported, then a 12v car battery does the job.
If parts are needed many of them are standardised and the car industry has much more sophisticated and wide-reaching distribution channels than your average medical-equipment company.
As one smart-ar*e journalist put it – “… this brings the whole concept of the race-car bred to the next level…”
But if you can’t make it to the hospital, the NeoNurture isn’t going to help. A team from Harvard looked at the same problem and, working with General Electric came up with Embrace – a sort of sleeping-bag warmer for premature babies.
The Embrace product uses phase-change material (the gel packs you’ve probably seen in camping and skiing shops which can be used to warm your hands up on a cold day) to keep the insulated cocoon warm for up to four hours. Since the packs are ‘recharged’ simply by boiling them in water you don’t need to be near an electrical outlet to use the warmer. The phase-change packs have the added advantage that if the baby gets too warm they actually stop radiating heat and start recharging themselves.
It’s a beautiful design which the team are already adapting further. They reckon they have already saved 150,000 lives, and aim to reduce infant mortality by 15% by 2013. Pretty inspiring stuff for a $80 product.