McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University
News from McCormick
Global Health Technologies Update: BiliRoo Phototherapy System
Students in the the study abroad program in global health technologies at the McCormick School of Engineering are currently working on projects in Cape Town, South Africa. McCormick students Brenna Rosenberg, Quan Li, and Zane DeSouza submit this update on their work:
A few years ago, a team in the GHT program in South Africa strived to create a low cost, efficient incubator for premature infants. Although their design was amazing, subsequently moving on to win various awards back in the US, a method was already in place in some clinics in the developing world that was only one-tenth the cost and more effective than the best incubators on the market - kangaroo mother care (KMC). This system, developed in Colombia in 1978 has been used as a powerful, low-cost method to provide thermoregulation to pre-term infants. KMC stresses 24-hour contact between the mother's chest and baby. The infant is held by a wrap (thari), towel, or blanket between the mother's breasts, thus mimicking the natural shape and temperature of the uterus. Mothers are restricted to the hospital ward while they care for their pre-term infants with KMC.
Jaundice is one of the most common health problems premature infants are prone to, affecting 60% of full term babies and 80% prematurely born. Jaundice left untreated over a long period of time is associated with various levels of neural damage, from clumsiness and fine motor defects to quadriplegia, hearing loss, and cerebral palsy in the most extreme cases.
The most common treatment for jaundice is phototherapy. Blue light is shined on the infant until bilirubin levels decline. However, this requires the infant to be placed in an incubator under large lights, separated from the mother. It is the goal of our team to develop a phototherapy blanket to be incorporated into kangaroo mother care, and thus used by facilities unable to afford expensive incubators.
We have been working with the nurses and mothers in Kangaroo Mother Care Ward at Karl Bremer Hospital in Bellville, a suburb of Cape Town. Observation of life within the ward has proved invaluable in creating a devise uniquely for mothers in the developing world. Even the simple observation of watching a mother tie her thari or move about the hospital has significantly played into all aspects of our design. Our visits also to urban and rural clinics has shown us the full range of child healthcare in South Africa. Northwestern professors here and back in Evanston have provided additional technical consultation on circuitry, optics, and material choices. The faculty at the University of Cape Town electrical and material engineering departments have also been helpful in finding sources for prototype materials and facilities for construction and testing.
In conjunction with the team in Evanston who started the project in winter quarter, we have developed a prototype of the phototherapy pad and a mock-up of the full thari. Technical questions are quickly arising, such as the breathability of the materials and alternative options for a disposable top cover, that require testing in the coming weeks. Our new prototype currently being produced builds upon the phototherapy pad produced last quarter, incorporating more advanced technical designs and improvements for comfort to the mother and infant.