US Grad Students Develop Cheap Incubation Alternative

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Embrace_LogoEmbrace, an NGO formed through a challenge presented to a group of graduate students at Stanford University, has developed a novel incubation device that retails for less than 1% of the cost of a traditional incubator and it is being incorporated into public health care in hospitals and clinics across the Global South. According to the WHO, 450 babies die every hour. That equates to about 20 million babies annually, 4 million of which die within the first month of life.[1] 98% of those babies lived in the Global South and 75% of them could have been saved if treatment were available. Throughout the course of its development, the innovation has saved the lives of over 50,000 infants in the Global South and is on the path to saving thousands more.

The Embrace Warmer (the Warmer, for short) seeks to combat neonatal mortality by regulating the body temperature of premature babies and infants born with a low birth weight. It resembles an infant sleeping bag and is comprised of three elements: an AccuTemp heater that helps generate heat, a Warmpak warming pad, which is made of a specific phase change material that maintains a temperature of 37 degrees for between 4 – 6 hours, and a BabyWrap insulated overwrap. Boiled water is poured into the heating unit. The Warmpak responds, melts, and solidifies at certain temperatures. Heat is absorbed and released when the material changes from solid to liquid. It starts to work immediately and brings temperatures up to 37 degrees in 10 – 15 minutes. The product has undergone safety testing and a number of clinical trials have guaranteed that it is as effective as current incubation methods.

131029_EYE_Baby Long.jpg.CROP.original-originalThe Warmer is designed for use in clinical settings and it does require intermittent access to electricity. The AccuTemp must be charged for 30 minutes every 4 – 6 hours. It only requires a small amount of electricity and could be charged via a generator in areas without access to reliable power grids. One unit costs about US $200. The unit can be re-used up to 50 times and can help between 36 – 50 babies, depending on the severity of their conditions. At present, the NGO is partnered with a variety of organizations in 11 countries in the Global South and it donates the Warmers to the NGOs, which then bring them to the healthcare facilities in their communities.

Newborn deaths account for over 40% of all child-mortality statistics and low birth-weight is the second-leading cause of infant mortality behind diarrhea-related dehydration.[2] The main complication that arises from low birth weight is the development of hypothermia, which needs treatment to prevent death. Most clinics in the Global South do not have incubators on hand or enough to serve their communities appropriately, given that the traditional incubator costs upward of $200,000. A variety of solutions to treat hypothermia exist, but they are generally either expensive and reliant on electricity or ineffective and downright dangerous. Incubators and radiant warmers rely heavily on a steady supply of electricity, which is often compromised in many locations in the Global South. They also require highly skilled technicians to operate and maintain them. Thermocol boxes don’t guarantee that the raised body temperature will be consistently held throughout treatment and more rudimentary fixes like hot coals, light bulbs and hot water bottles are dangerous, to say the least.

embrace-warmer-2The people at Embrace recognize that just treating hypothermia isn’t enough to combat infant mortality. In conjunction with providing the Warmer for free to healthcare providers in the Global South, they also provide a variety of programs aimed at training and educating health practitioners and community members about the causes, prevention, and treatment of hypothermia in infants both within the health system and at home. Embrace also values Kangaroo Maternal Care, and the Warmer should be used in conjunction with this practice.

The Embrace team took its prototypes to Nepal and India, where almost 40% of the world’s premature babies are born. Initial testing of the product involved dummies and lambs in place of babies and a clinical trial involving 155 premature babies proved the usefulness of the product. Embrace then began introducing its product through partnerships with hospitals and clinics in India, China, Guatemala, South Sudan, Somalia and Uganda. Since 2009, it has been expanding its reach and has partnered with hospitals, doctors, nurses, midwives and NGOs in a variety of countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa. It is currently partnering with many more communities in India and has begun operating in Afghanistan last year. The organization is developing a similar product for home use that is currently undergoing clinical trials. Embrace has also developed a social enterprise called Embrace Innovations, which exists as a separate entity. It is responsible for the R&D of the Warmer and other products, and gains revenue from selling the product to governments and private hospitals.

The innovation was initially funded by Echoing Green and the Stanford BASES Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. It has received a number of awards and distinctions throughout its development. The organization won the Stanford Entrepreneurial Challenge in 2008 and became a TED fellow in 2009. In 2011, the Warmer won the People’s Choice Award and was a finalist in the INDEX Awards. It also received the Economist Innovation Award in 2013.

For more information about the development and expansion of the project, visit Enbrace’s website. Click here for a TED talk about the project, or watch the video below from ABC News.

 

 

[1] http://event.wavecastpro.com/theeconomist-innovationawards2013/social-economic-innovation-winner-2013/

[2] http://www.who.int/gho/child_health/mortality/neonatal_infant_text/en/

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Sarah Anstett

Sarah Anstett

Sarah is a writer, researcher, and development practitioner currently based in Toronto, Canada.

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