Every year, 20 million babies are born prematurely, and each hour 450 die from mostly avoidable causes. Most pre-term babies are born with low-birth weights that are unsuited to regulating body temperature and thus their ability to survive depends on medical intervention.
India has the highest infant mortality rate for pre-term babies in the world. Many births occur at home, or in rural health centers that don’t have facilities to care for premature infants. Even state-run hospitals might not be able to afford the life-saving equipment, which can cost up to $20,000.
GE Healthcare has developed an incubator called the Lullaby baby-warmer, which was originally launched in 2009. At $3,000, it costs 70% less and consumes 60% less energy than traditional incubators. The Lullaby is particularly useful in India, where 70% of the population live in rural areas without access to world-class hospitals and medical equipment. The device was designed with rural healthcare workers in mind, with pictorial warnings and colour coding so that someone who is unable to read or who speaks a different language is still able to operate to device. An alarm will automatically sound if the infant’s skin temperature fluctuates off the set-point, alerting health care workers of a risk to the infant’s health. Due to the success it has had in India, the product is now being sold in more than 80 countries world-wide.
Tied to the Grid
However, the main drawback to the design is certainly the need for a continuous electric current for the device to run. Many women in rural communities give birth at home, where they do not have access to electricity. Even for those who have electricity in their homes, anyone who has lived in a developing country can tell you that sudden power losses to whole neighborhoods is a common occurrence throughout the week. If power is lost at hours at a time, with no back up generator to keep the incubator running, infant body temperatures could drop dangerously low.
Graduate students at Stanford’s Institute of Design came up with a solution to this problem in 2007. The device, called the Embrace, is a baby sleeping bag that has a removable heating element made from phase-change material (PCM). Every four hours the PCM pouch is removed and reheated in boiling water on a portable heater that accompanies the product, although an off the grid solution could be the use of a fire-pit. The pouch only needs to be boiled for a few minutes before it regains the temperature needed to keep the baby warm. The design also allows for skin-to-skin contact with the mother to help keep the baby warm, which is not possible with traditional incubators.
Though the Lullaby is less expensive than traditional incubators, the Embrace costs a meager $25 to make, is reusable and easily sanitized in boiling water, easy to distribute and use, and as the project is not for profit, the warmers are donated to impoverished mothers in communities that would most benefit from this innovation. The Embrace is thought to have saved the lives of 22,000 infants so far in India, where the first version of the product was launched.
Certain discrepancies between Kannan’s article and the information on Stanford University’s website include the cost of Embrace and how long the PCM stays at the right temperature. In both cases the Stanford information was used here.
This article was originally published in February 2014.