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Device to detect severe neonatal illnesses tested in African countries

A group of students traveled to Africa to show off the device, get feedback and find whether it meets the needs of people there.

By Stephen Feller

WASHINGTON, Sept. 23 (UPI) -- The neonatal period of life -- the first 28 days after birth -- is considered the most vulnerable of a newborns' life, making the ability to monitor for illness or adverse health conditions significantly important.

Researchers from the Center for Biomedical Innovation and Design at Johns Hopkins University found that a small device that monitors conditions quickly and easily could be a huge value in developing nations, where access to medical facilities and care can be limited.

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The researchers took the device, which has not been named yet, to Kenya and Uganda with infant-sized dolls to demonstrate the device and its potential for people in towns and villages there, according to a press release.

The drive to improve neonatal healthcare is based on newborn infants making up 45 percent of all child deaths before age 5, with 75 percent of those deaths occurring in the first week of life, according to the World Health Organization.

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The WHO says as much as two-thirds of all newborn deaths could be avoided. The main causes of newborn deaths are prematurity, low birth weight, infections, asphyxia and birth trauma -- many of which researchers think could be prevented if care providers had better access to more information about the tiny patients.

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"An individual [community health volunteer] can be responsible for overseeing over 100 households, or as many as 500-600 people, and generally takes about a month to cover this population," said Matthew Lerner, one of the members of the CBID's Neonatal Team for 2016 and 2017. "Equipped with nothing more than their own knowledge and experience to assist them in their duties due to limited resources, these individuals must trek across a variety of terrains and distance to reach the homes in their community. In some instances, individuals had to travel as far as [five kilometers] to reach a single home."

The belt-like device the students were field-testing and conducting research on tracks vital signs and could help identify life-threatening health conditions, with the purpose of a trip by students this summer to get feedback on the idea of the device and what caregivers might expect out of it.

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"As we received more and more stakeholder feedback, we were able to validate our hypothesis that earlier identification of neonatal illness at the home would be useful and potentially life-changing," Polly Ma, a member of the CBID team, wrote in a blog post.

Caregivers became more open to the idea as they heard more about the potential for the devices, telling students they would likely use it and asking for specific features, including light indicators and a "stretchier" band for easier use.

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"Before this trip, the project was [to me] just a monitoring device that would help mothers detect severe illnesses in neonates," said Rachel An, a member of the CBID Neonatal Team. "Now, I see the project as something that can empower mothers and community health workers. True impact is not made from savvy new technology, but from elegantly designed solutions that are sustainable, culturally appropriate, and able to integrate into the established health care system."

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