For as much as we argue about the health care system in the U.S., the quality and accessibility of it is something that many of us take for granted. In developing countries, access to health care is not a given, and for a pregnant woman, that access can mean the difference between life and death for the mother and the baby.
When babies are born prematurely, they are usually placed in incubators until they are strong enough to regulate their body temperature and fight infection on their own. But incubators are expensive to own and operate, requiring constant electricity and a complicated maintenance routine. In developing nations, or those in which the health care system has been disrupted by war or disaster, it's unlikely that incubators exist at all. But a British graduate student has invented a way to help these babies when access to hospitals or medical care is scarce.
"I was watching a Panorama program on BBC about Syrian refugees, and they had a segment about how there are loads of premature kids dying because of the stresses of war and specifically the lack of incubators out there and the infrastructure to support them," James Roberts told the BBC. "I thought there has to be a way to solve that."
Roberts' solution is the MOM, an inflatable incubator that can be easily transported and maintained. Each unit contains a sheet of plastic that is comprised of inflatable transparent panels. These panels can be inflated manually and heated by a ceramic element. Temperature and humidity are carefully controlled using a computer and a phototherapy lamp to help treat jaundice, a medical condition caused by liver dysfunction that is common in premature infants. The whole unit is designed to use as little power as possible. It can be plugged into a standard wall outlet, a generator, or even a car battery. The MOM incubator costs just $450, a mere fraction of the $55,000 needed for a standard incubator unit. And the best part is that Roberts' incubator folds up neatly so that it can be easily shared and transported.
"Normally with incubators it costs loads to get them anywhere because you need huge boxes to put them in, and that can cost a lot to put on a flight," Roberts said. "This one can go in care packages already used for refugee camps."
Roberts recently received the 2014 James Dyson Award for his ingenuity, which in addition to publicity, came with a $45,000 prize. He plans to use that money to further develop his prototype. His hope is that MOM can be made into a commercial product and used by charities and organizations in developing countries.
For more on Roberts and his design, check out this BBC interview below:
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