At the global level, three million babies die every year in their first month of life, and 98% of these deaths are occurring in the developing world. For the case of Uganda it is clear that solutions for reducing neonatal mortality are critically needed. Due to understaffing and lack of sufficient functional medical equipment, gaps in neonatal health care emerge and persist. Moreover, without any continuous monitoring, babies in distress frequently go unnoticed while nurses are occupied elsewhere and often die as a result. Many of these deaths can be preventable if proper equipment, appropriate innovations are developed, produced and deployed whereby human life will be saved at the early stages of birth.
What can be done?
Given the aforementioned situation with particular references to experiences on the ground, it is clear neonatal health trends in sub-Saharan Africa (including Uganda) deserve considerable review and interventions, to ensure that newborn babies can survive and thrive for the benefit of society in terms of sustaining populations for the future generations to come.
On its part, the IEEE SIGHT Uganda group has undertaken to collaborate with one organization known as NEOPENDA so that together they develop, test and deploy a technology based solution to contribute towards the reduction of neonatal deaths within Uganda and a model neonatal health solution which could be replicated to the betterment of neonatal health conditions in sub-saharan Africa and possibly beyond. This device is a vital signs monitor and it detects four major vital signs namely (heart rate, respiration, blood oxygen saturation and temperature) of a new born child so that any fault detected timely is corrected accordingly thereby preventing any form of ill-health or even death.
This project is a joint effort whose implementation is involving engineers and technologists, health workers, parents and policy makers at national and sub-national levels. With the participation of this diverse team, the projects intends to utilize a variety of inputs to come-up with a concerted solution to reducing the loss of life at birth in Uganda. In its implementation undertaking, the team uses surveys, consultative efforts, case studies and experience sharing among others to compile and share ideas on how to improve the solution.
The co-founders of Neopenda, Sona Shah and Teresa Cauvel, have made four trips to Uganda to better understand the needs and design constraints of the country. During the trips, they communicate with stakeholders such as nurses and clinicians, hospital administrators, NGO and government officials, engineers and technicians, and parents of newborns in the hospital. In total, the team has surveyed 27 hospitals and health facilities in Uganda, and engaged over 150 stakeholders. Nurse Damalie Mwogererwa, who works at Mulago hospital described the issue at hand: “Out numbering the workers is a big challenge… It makes us ineffective. It commonly encroaches on the monitoring, because by the time you start on the first baby, when you reach the last baby you may not find the last baby surviving.”
The monitor that the IEEE Uganda SIGHT created with Neopenda is a wearable device that can be reused and cleaned simply by being wiped down with easily available 70% Isopropyl Alcohol. The devices also have a rechargeable battery which lasts for about 5-7 days, the same length in which a newborn usually stays at the hospital. The data from multiple devices can be transmitted via Bluetooth Low Energy to one single tablet. A nurse will then be able to receive notifications through the tablet of any abnormal vital signs. On the user interface, health care workers can also view vital sign trends and be able to better understand how to move forward with an infant’s treatment.
With the help of IEEE Uganda SIGHT, Neopenda was able to create a device with reusability, affordability, power constraints, and durability in mind. On August 11th, 2017 IEEE Uganda SIGHT, IEEE Uganda Members and Neopenda engaged mothers of Bukwenda village (Wakiso District) in carrying out a feasibility and acceptance assessment of the vital signs monitor. This focus group of mothers, caregivers, Neopenda members, and IEEE Uganda SIGHT members discussed some feedback on the device and how to further improve it. Some mothers did not understand the importance of vital signs and were wary of the devices being attached to the wrists and heads of their babies’ bodies. However, after learning how abnormal vital signs can prompt nurses to provide immediate medical attention, the mothers were very appreciative of the device. There is a continuous open dialogue between the mothers, nurses, and the creators of the device to further improve the impact of the device.
This noble cause is a one year project which is enjoying support funding from IEEE-SIGHT to the tune of $19,850 and has made tremendous progress in accordance to the earlier set plans. As the team behind the project, we are passionate about seeing that technology moves from the testing stage to a stage whereby it is applied by the health Units throughout communities in Uganda.
Interested in receiving funding for your SIGHT group to engage in a project similar to this? The 2018 SIGHT Call for Proposals is a available now and can be found here.