Low-cost incubator saves babies' lives
01:33 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Jane Chen is the co-founder of Embrace, a social enterprise seeking to help vulnerable babies survive and thrive. She is a TED Fellow; watch her 2010 TED Talk

Story highlights

Jane Chen says baby deaths are often preventable in developing world

Her nonprofit developed a low-cost infant warmer to help save vulnerable babies

Chen: Mothers are the ones with greatest incentive to save lives

CNN  — 

“So many babies in developing countries die everyday. Do parents even care, or is it an accepted, everyday part of life?”

I was asked this five years ago when I was launching Embrace, a social enterprise that has developed an innovative infant warmer to help vulnerable babies. I was deeply disturbed by this question, but at the time, I didn’t have the words to express why.

Upon moving to India, the starting point for our work where 40% of the world’s premature and underweight babies are born, I found my answer to this skeptic. I met a woman, Sujatha, from a village in southern India, who had lost all three of her babies because of lack of access to health care.

One of her babies was born two months prematurely and was unable to regulate his own temperature. She described to me her desperate attempts to keep him warm by placing him under a light bulb. But her baby died a few days later. While Sujatha ultimately adopted a little girl, the grief she feels for the children she lost is still present and profound.

Jane Chen speaks at TED2013.

Sadly, I’ve met dozens of women over the years who have similar stories. And I’ve come to learn that a mother, no matter how poor, uneducated or impoverished, will do anything to save her baby.

The fact that almost 3 million babies die yearly (that’s about 340 babies every hour) within the first 28 days of their life, shows there is something deeply wrong with the health care systems and solutions that exist today.

One of the biggest problems these vulnerable babies face is staying warm. This is the primary function of a traditional incubator. But incubators in developed countries cost up to $20,000, require a constant supply of electricity and are difficult to operate. (The Embrace warmers cost less than $300 each.)

Embrace’s infant warmers are a novel solution. The product has been designed specifically for resource-constrained settings. It looks like a small sleeping bag, which incorporates a wax-like phase change material in a plastic pouch that melts at body temperature (98.6 F) to keep the baby at a constant temperature.

The PCM pouch can be heated with either a short burst of electricity or by placing it in boiling water. Once melted, it can maintain a constant temperature for up to eight hours, after which it can be reheated.

In addition to being low cost, the product does not require a constant supply of electricity, complements existing practices such as skin-to-skin care and is extremely safe and intuitive to use.

The technology itself, however, is only part of the solution. Technology is only an enabler, which can help achieve the intention of the person who is using it. No one has more motivation to save a baby than a mother. And yet, few technologies that address infant mortality are designed for mothers.

Instead, technologies are usually designed for doctors in hospital settings. In a country such as India, where the doctor to patient ratio is 1:2,000, this can pose a huge challenge.

Embrace initially launched a version of our warmer that could be used by doctors in hospitals and clinics, thinking this would allow us to safely introduce the product in a controlled environment with trained professionals. However, even in these settings, mothers were able to participate in caring for their babies, given the warmers allow mothers to be right next to their infants.

We are now piloting a version of the product that can be used directly by mothers at home.

In conducting training assessments with doctors, nurses and mothers, early results show that it is the mothers, many of whom are uneducated and illiterate, who are achieving the highest scores on these tests because they have the most thorough understanding of our product. In retrospect, this makes perfect sense: It’s the mothers who are the most intent on saving their babies.

Embrace has now helped more than 20,000 babies, mostly in India, and has pilots running in 10 countries. We hope to help many more babies and mothers around the world, not only with this technology but by creating a line of affordable, locally appropriate technologies that are specifically designed for the caretakers who have the greatest intent.

I believe the only way we’ll be able to solve infant mortality – and other huge social problems – is by designing solutions for those with the greatest intent to carry it out.

To me, this is technology at its best because it is technology that enables the most beautiful part of the human spirit to be actualized: our selfless determination to protect and to care for those whom we love.

There is no purer instance of this than with a mother and her baby. With solutions designed with this in mind, newborn deaths no longer need to be a part of everyday life.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jane Chen.