Pneumonia is the leading cause of death in post-neonatal children. Reasons for this include malnutrition, a lack of breastfeeding and overcrowded conditions. What makes this fact even sadder is that pneumonia is completely treatable, it just has to be diagnosed in time.
“Over 1 month of age, pneumonia is still the largest killer of children anywhere in the world,” says Shamim Ahmad Qazi, a pediatrician who works with the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2015, this figure was close to 1 million—more deaths in children under the age of 5 than malaria, measles and HIV/AIDS combined. “In most cases, it’s difficult to diagnose,” says Qazi, especially in less-developed countries where X-ray equipment isn’t widely available. In Uganda, pneumonia is often mistaken for malaria—the two share common symptoms like fever and cough—but people are quick to assume malaria because the disease has gotten greater publicity in recent years. And yet, according to UNICEF, only 2 cents goes toward pneumonia for every health dollar spent globally.
In order to combat this “forgotten killer of children,” as the World Health Organization calls it, Ugandan engineers and students have come up with a new tool to improve the diagnosing of young children. According to Newsweek, the prototype “Mama-Ope is a biomedical jacket that measures vital signs that can indicate the presence of pneumonia. Once the jacket is fitted snugly over a child’s chest, it syncs with an app over Bluetooth, and in under two minutes readings flash up indicating the child’s temperature, breathing rate and an assessment of whether the lungs sound normal or not.”
“When you’ve got pneumonia, your lungs—because of the inflammation—get filled with fluid, so you struggle to oxygenate your blood and the body’s natural response is to breathe faster,” says Keith Klugman, the director for pneumonia at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “In a community setting, fast breathing is not something that’s recognized easily by mothers as a danger sign for a child, and that is something the jacket picks up on.”
The name of the device, Mama-Ope, which means “mother’s hope,” has been short-listed for this year’s Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa Prize – and rightfully so. “Eventually, we hope it will be used in the community—something that parents can buy and use to know who is facing the disease so they can be taken for treatment,” the team notes. And on behalf of the rest of the world, we are hoping so too.