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An internship at a hospital in Malawi was an eye-opening experience for Sonia Sosa.

“Sometimes, there are tons of babies, and there are not that many nurses, so they’re understaffed. It was really hard to work there, but then it also challenged me to really go back and work really hard to be able to provide this care that is accessible to them,” said Sosa, who studied biomedical engineering and is a global health fellow at Rice 360° Institute for Global Health in Houston. 

The purpose of the institute, through various programs, is to design and implement new technologies to combat global health problems. 

One of the institute’s efforts is the Newborn Essential Solutions and Technologies project also known as NEST360°. The collaborative, multinational effort aims to reduce the number of newborn deaths in sub-Saharan Africa, a region with one of the highest neonatal mortality rates in the world. NEST aims to develop a collection of medical technologies that would be appropriate for a harsh and challenging environment and make them sustainable through educating clinicians and developing distribution systems for this technology. 

The devices are being developed or being tested, such as a light weight incubator, a diagnostic device for jaundice and respiratory rate monitor. 

Made for the environment

In total, 17 technologies have been identified, and together, engineers say they can help prevent the top causes of newborn deaths such as pneumonia and preterm birth in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Our students developed a solution that would cost on the order of hundreds of dollars and not only address the fact that it needed to be robust and cost-effective, but also easy to maintain and repair should something happen,” said Yvette Mirabal, executive director of Rice 360° Institute For Global Health.

Countries such as Malawi have received donations of medical equipment in the past, but they were not always helpful.

“I saw that all the devices come in as donations from First World countries, they didn’t fit in there. People used it differently, put them in weird places, and when they broke, there were no spare parts,” said global health fellow and engineer Jack Wang.

The devices ended up collecting dust and becoming useless because they were not right for the environment. There is also the issue of a lack of knowledge about the first world equipment. 

“The engineers, doctors, nurses, aren’t necessarily familiar and or trained with them, unless they had gone to a Western school where they’ve been exposed to some of these technologies, but maybe even in more complex forms. So, there was a systemic change that needed to be addressed,” said Mirabal.

Understanding the harsh dusty environment in Malawi and inconsistent electricity will help engineers build better devices, suitable for that part of the world. 

“We’re, in some cases, incorporating battery power where it’s appropriate. And then in other cases, we’re testing out backup power or including sort of with the NEST bundle of technologies, a package of solar power so that when there are those blackouts, there’s a backup system,” Mirabal said.

Of the 17 technologies, some are commercially available. Others are either in clinical trials or in early prototypes. A $15 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation is a start at achieving the goal of developing the technologies, scale them and roll them out first in Malawi, and eventually to other countries that need them.

 
 
 
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