New Inventions Help Fight Diseases in the Developing World

PHOTO: Be the Change: Save a Life: ABC News Global Health Series
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Impoverished countries, which lack funding, education and access to proper medical care, are often plagued by viruses and diseases that have long been cured in the West.

In a special edition of "20/20," we take a look at three technological inventions that are helping to solve some of the world's worst health problems: the Camel Caravan in Kenya, GeneXpert in Cambodia and Embrace Infant Warmers in India.

This story is part of ABC News' "Be the Change: Save a Life" initiative, a year-long series of broadcasts and digital coverage focusing on global health issues.Click here to watch the special.

For complete coverage and information on how you can personally make a difference, go to SaveOne.net.

Camel Caravan Brings Supplies Across Kenyan Deserts

In the vast, barren land of Northern Kenya, roads are often nonexistent and temperatures can climb into the triple digits. These conditions make it extremely hard to deliver vaccines and supplies, especially to the nomadic Samburu people.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 23 percent of people in Kenya don't have basic vaccines.

ABC News' Jay Schadler reported from the region on the novel idea of delivering medical supplies off the backs of camels instead of trucks.


Camel solar power packs

Camels make the perfect mobile medical unit because they can go great distances without food or water. They're acclimated to desert life and they can carry up to 200 pounds.

Donna Thorson, a retired Boeing engineer, said she became aware of the Samburu people while vacationing in Kenya. After seeing the Camel Caravan, she decided to expand on the idea with one of her own -- a battery-powered refrigeration pack that fits onto a camel saddle.

Thorson described her system as simply a refrigerator, hooked-up to a battery pack that hangs on a traditional camel saddle. Lightweight, pliable solar panels are used to charge the batteries. The system is able to keep vaccines and other drugs refrigerated for hours -- not an easy feat in such a harsh climate.

"What I'm trying to do is take some of my money and my time and actually make a difference somewhere," Thorson told ABC News.

Although the idea of a solar-powered refrigerator is nothing new, Thorson said other models have "never worked out here" for several reasons.

Older solar panels were too fragile and too heavy to work with, and other refrigeration units often broke down from the pounding movement of the camel's gait. Also, the batteries that were used were usually too heavy or bulky to be carried great distances.

Last October, the WHO upgraded the standards for proper vaccine storage conditions, which made the previous refrigeration units unacceptable for sanctioned use.

After a year of research and field testing, Thorson developed her refrigeration system, which had to be proven to work before it could get WHO approval. She said she purposefully tried to "keep it simple," and was very conscious of the rigors of travel in a desert environment.

Ironically, her biggest inspiration for her system came from the oceans -- the refrigerator she chose was built to be used on boats. Thorson said she figured if it could survive being knocked around on the high seas it could probably handle riding on the back of a camel.

"Now it will be on the ship of the desert," she said.

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