Before we were all stressed college students cramming for our midterms, we were all minuscule eggs within in our mother’s uterus. After fertilization, the zygotes—which eventually become us—initiate rapid dividing, and over the subsequent forty weeks develop into a baby. However, the forty week span varies, resulting in preterm births.
The Global Action Report on Preterm Birth, conducted by the WHO, describes preterm birth as an “overlooked and neglected problem,” and an “unrecognized killer.” Preterm babies constitute nearly fifty percent of newborn death around the world and represent the second leading cause of death for children under the age of five. The volume of preterm births is substantial in both developed and developing countries. However, the difference in survival rates are stark. For example, babies born before the 28-week period require intense critical care, leading to a ninety percent chance of survival in developed countries, which casts a long shadow over the ten percent survival rate in developing countries. Children born before the 37-week mark require supportive care, with incubation as a central component.
Premature babies often have little body fat and are unable to regulate their own body temperature. Thus, the baby could die without incubation. Many developing countries are plagued by lack of incubators leading to high preterm infant mortality rates. The rates increase in rural areas as many infants never make it to the hospital.
In 2007, a group of Stanford students, Jane Chen, Rahul Panicker, Linus Liang, and later Naganand Murty, took this challenge as their topic for a class assignment. What began as a class project eventually evolved into Embrace, a non-profit organization with an international impact. The group developed a real-life product: the Embrace Infant Warmer, a simple, cheap medical device that has the potential to prevent millions of newborn deaths in developing countries. This infant warmer resembles a miniature sleeping bag and is easily transportable. The product uses phase change material, a proprietary wax-like substance, which maintains a constant temperature (98.6 F/ 37 C) while supplying the baby with heat. The “sleeping bag” absorbs heat from the phase change material and gradually releases heat over a period of time (six hours). One can reheat the warmer by submerging it in boiling water for a few minutes. The largest breakthrough, however, may be the cost—the warmer costs only $300 compared to the $20,000 cost of a traditional incubator.
While the infant warmer requires an AC power source, it can also run off of a generator or any other form of AC power. Embrace has obtained international certification for the design and manufacturing of medical devices. Currently, several nations already employ the Embrace Warmer: India, Nepal, Mexico, and Uganda, as well as being introduced in nine sub-Saharan African countries. Jane Chen (co-founder) claims that 150,000 babies spread across ten countries have been helped by the Embrace Warmer since its conception. Rahul (the other co-founder) believes many other challenges in the world can be resolved through innovative designs like the Embrace Warmer. “I’m optimistic that many of the challenges the world faces today, creative minds with missionary zeal will take them on because they refuse to accept an unjust world.”
The challenges people face in this “unjust world” are becoming better known with the advances in communicative media. Products such as the Embrace Infant Warmer illustrate the possibility of developing and disseminating affordable healthcare solutions. No step toward alleviating healthcare disparities is too small or insignificant.
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