Four Stanford students turned entrepreneurs have developed an inexpensive infant warmer that functions as a low-tech device. The innovative new product is described as having the potential to save thousands of babies in the developing world.
Embrace Infant Warmers are non-electric, miniature sleeping bags that use a removable wax insert, which can be heated safely using hot water. The product is easy to sanitize and can be heated over and over again.
The team has also designed another model for rural clinics that will use an electric heating apparatus instead of water to warm the wax.
Once the hot wax insert is placed inside the sleeping bag, it can maintain a consistent 98 degrees for 4 to 6 hours, keeping a premature or Low Birth Weight (LBW) newborn at a healthy body temperature.
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The team's invention came out of a class assignment at Stanford's Institute of Design in 2007, when they were tasked to come up with a low-cost incubator design that could help save premature babies born into poverty. The team, Jane Chen, Rahul Panicker, Naganand Murty and Linus Liang, first traveled to Kathmandu, Nepal to better understand the needs of women who would use their product.
"We first went to Nepal and came to understand the magnitude of the problem. The numbers are huge," said Chen, co-founder and CEO of Embrace.
According to World Health Organization, 20 million premature and LBW babies are born around the world every year and 4 million of them die within the first four weeks of life -- that's 450 babies dying every hour.
Incubators are vital because the internal organs of premature babies are not fully developed at birth.
"These babies are so tiny they don't have enough fat to regulate their own body temperature," Chen said. "In fact, room temperature feels like freezing cold water to them."
Premature and LBW babies are at an even greater risk of falling victim to hypothermia and potentially neo-natal death because there is so little fat on them. Those babies that do survive often face a lifetime of debilitating diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and weak brain development.
The Embrace's simple, easy-to-use design addressed several problems that plague the developing world with keeping infants alive. The first one is cost.
A traditional infant incubator can cost as much as $20,000 in the United States, putting this essential, life-saving machine out of reach for many of the world's poor. But at just around $100, an Embrace costs less than 1 percent of that.
Another challenge facing infant survival in the developing world is access to the technology of modern medicine. The majority of premature Nepalese infants are born in rural slums and villages, where hospitals are scarce. Even if a woman is able to get to a hospital, expensive incubators are often in short supply.
Other issues were the product needed to be simple to operate without electricity, and transportable so that mothers and midwives could use it themselves. In many underdeveloped countries, a large number of births still happen at home in areas that often don't have electricity.