A smart jacket devised by a team of recent graduates in Uganda could save millions of lives by catching signs of pneumonia early.
Every 20 seconds, a child dies from pneumonia. Yet, according to the World Health Organization, pneumonia is one of the most solvable problems in global health.
The international non-govermental organisation Save The Children says that, when correctly diagnosed, the infection can be treated with a three-to-five-day course of antibiotics that costs just US$0.40.
Now, a team of recent engineering graduates has devised a way to use sensors, analytics and Bluetooth technology to diagnose pneumonia.
Graduates Olivia Koburongo, Besufekad Shifferaw and Brian Turyabagye from Makerere University in Uganda set out to create the tool after seeing the results of a missed pneumonia diagnosis: Koburongo lost her grandmother to the illness, which doctors initially thought was malaria.
While not uncommon in the elderly, pneumonia affects children disproportionally. Globally, the illness claimed the lives of 920,126 children in 2015 alone.
“Many of those deaths are because of misdiagnosis,” Turyabagye said.
“In the villages and remote areas, children get sick — and the first reaction is to treat them for malaria. Most people are aware of malaria, and the signs for malaria and pneumonia are very similar, so it is difficult for health professionals to differentiate.”
The team designed a biomedical smart jacket that analyses a patient’s temperature, breathing rate and the wheezing sound in the lungs. The jacket can diagnose pneumonia three to four times faster than a doctor and can lessen the burden on medical professionals in a region that faces an extreme shortage of trained doctors.
The device is called MamaOpe, which means ‘mother’s hope’. It works like a wearable stethoscope, with precisely placed sensors. Since it doesn’t require a doctor to run the tests, it can be used at remote locations.
MamaOpe connects to a mobile phone app via Bluetooth. The app records and analyses the medical data, then sends the results to a healthcare professional to make an informed diagnosis.
According to a CNN report, the device “surveys specific points on the lungs for symptoms of pneumonia, characterised by a swelling of the lungs caused by infection.”
“We use MATLAB signal analysis functions to analyse the data collected by the device. It helps filter and identify abnormal patterns,” Turyabagye said.
“The analysis determined parameters that were crucial to the project. These parameters guided the implementation stages, such as the design of the filter and amplifier circuits.”
The team is currently working to have the device certified in Uganda. Once certified by the regulatory authority, it intends to produce and supply the jacket to countries in East Africa.
“Really, we are looking to help the next generation,” Turyabagye said.
“Pneumonia has such a high rate in Uganda and our neighbouring countries; if we were able to distribute in those countries we could save a lot of people.”