With every breath

Each day, thousands of babies are delivered at home or in poorly equipped health facilities in rural villages across the developing world. Many are premature and not all survive because of irregular breathing and similar respiratory problems.

Ventilators or breathing aids can prevent such unnecessary deaths. The problem: Most of these devices are too expensive for rural health centers to purchase or too complex for community health workers to operate.

A group of U.S. scientists is out to change this, and save thousands of babies’ lives along the way.

Researchers and doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital have designed and developed a low-cost and easy-to-use device that can provide basic breathing assistance to premature babies. The device is dubbed Hansen Ventilator, after Dr. Tom Hansen, head of Settle Children’s Hospital, who first thought of making a breathing device that is both simpler and more affordable than those currently available on the market.

The Hansen Ventilator has fewer moving parts than a conventional ventilator, which is usually a bedside machine with a breathing tube that can be placed in a sick baby’s windpipe to help regulate their breathing. Instead of the numerous dials and gauges usually found on these conventional devices, the Hansen Ventilator only has two knobs to control the respiratory rate and inflation time.

The Hansen Ventilator also runs on less power compared with conventional devices. In fact, the developers said the device can be powered by a laptop battery.

With this simple design and even simpler requirements, Peter Richardson of the Hansen Ventilator developers team said the device costs significantly less than the $30,000 price tag of most conventional ventilators.

To be sure, the Hansen Device is not perfect. For one, the device has to be manually adjusted to match the changing breathing patterns of the user, in contrast to more high-tech devices that adjust automatically. The Hansen Ventilator also lacks the monitoring feature of conventional devices that track how a baby’s lungs are responding, the developers say. They do stress that while both necessary, these features are not always required in all cases involving premature babies.

Hansen, Richardson and the rest of their team believe there is a market for their ventilator in the developing world, and they are improving the device’s design to tailor it better to the needs and capabilities of the developing world.

Their plan is to bring the prototypes to India and eventually scale it to other developing countries, with the help of groups such as Seattle-based international non-governmental organization PATH, which is already on board with Seattle Children’s Hospital’s goal to give premature babies a better chance to survive.

Read last week’s #innov8aid, on a new device to carry water.

About the author

  • Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.