Every child, no matter where they are born, should have the right to a healthy life. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in Africa for a long time. Common killer diseases still claim a huge number of lives, and every day we are bombarded with images of pain in the media. These diseases have been the top causes of children’s death throughout the continent time and time again.
Nearly 1.4 million children under the age of five die from pneumonia each year. This accounts for one in five child deaths globally. All those human lives turn into one more news story, and while headlines might change, the pain that mothers endure does not easily go away.
Pneumonia is an acute infection of the lungs, which can be treated and cured if detected early enough. However, early diagnosis is often hindered, as pneumonia shares many common symptoms with malaria and other respiratory diseases. Evidence reveals the sobering reality: only 1 in 5 caregivers knows the danger signs of pneumonia. Furthermore, only half of the sick children will receive appropriate medical care, such as life-saving antibiotics.
Common symptoms of pneumonia in children include rapid or difficult breathing, cough, fever, chills, headaches, loss of appetite, and wheezing. Health workers are trained to diagnose pneumonia by observing a child’s breathing rate. By counting how quickly the chest rises and falls over one minute, breathing rate can be calculated. Although this is a basic measure, faster breathing can be a dangerous sign of the disease.
This method, however, still leaves a diagnosis gap, as different caregivers can end up miscounting the breathing cycles. In more advanced settings, a stethoscope is used to listen to the lungs for sounds of infection. The entire process can be lengthy and health workers can make different judgements due to limited training levels and insufficient knowledge.
In a bid to reduce the margin for human error and help doctors make faster, more accurate diagnoses, we designed a bio-medical ‘smart jacket’, code-named ‘MAMAOPE’. ‘Mama’ stands for mother, while ‘ope’ means hope. MAMAOPE symbolizes, quite literally, the Mother’s hope.
Fitted to the patient, the kit measures temperature and breathing rate, and compares it to a database of parameters. The prototype jacket can diagnose pneumonia three times faster than a doctor, reducing potentially fatal human error. With long queues in many health centres, the time-saving kit could enable the medical workers to spend more time treating patients.
The jacket is fully automated, requiring no additional training for the village health teams to operate it. As pneumonia doesn’t have a confirmatory test, it is normally diagnosed by checking the signs and symptoms. Our kit aims to standardise readings and help health workers avoid misdiagnosis.
Our goal is to make custom devices for parents and mothers as well. We hope to roll out cheap and improved monitoring devices to health centres across Africa, reducing deaths from lung-related diseases.
Health is a right; fighting to respect it is a duty for us all.
Brian Turyabagye and his innovation ‘MAMAOPE’ have been shortlisted for the 2017 Africa Prize by the Royal Academy of Engineering. The Africa Prize encourages sub-Saharan African engineers to develop scalable solutions to local challenges. Shortlisted engineers are awarded crucial support in commercialising their innovations, and the winner receives a cash prize of £25,000. Three Runners up are each awarded £10,000.