Jaundice affects around 60 percent of newborn babies in the first week of life. Without treatment, it can be fatal. DW's Murali Krishnan reports from New Dehli on an LED kit could save their lives.
It was the sight of a mass of babies lying naked on a government hospital floor, sweating, dehydrated and being treated for jaundice by a halogen tube hanging from the ceiling by a rope that left an enduring impression on Vivek Kopparthi, an engineer based in the US.
"The way that hospital treated jaundice was perhaps, one of the most unsafe ways of treatments available. I knew I had to work out a useful and alternate treatment," Vivek told DW.
Vivek was traveling across India a year back to do some market research for neonatal medical devices. He realized that developing a viable phototherapy system with light-emitting diodes, or LED bulbs, could be the answer for effectively treating jaundice among newborns.
Soon enough, he and his team set up NeoLight, a socially conscious startup, and built an affoldable device that runs on solar, battery and AC power.
"My device is a small, flat slab, and when the baby sleeps on that, it gives off blue light that has the ability to reduce the excessive presence of a neurotoxin called bilirubin.
The treatment does not have any side effects, Vivek added. Nor does it do anything else but treat jaundice
Filling a void
Mortality and morbidity from severe jaundice is common in developing regions of the world, where phototherapy - a simple and cost-effective light treatment - is largely unavailable.
Worldwide, three out of every five newborns experience infant jaundice. Of those, one in ten will require treatment with phototherapy to prevent any potentially serious complications, including kernicterus, a severe form of brain damage.
Yet each year, studies show that nearly six million jaundiced newborns in South Asia and Africa receive no phototherapy.
The team of entrepreneurs at NeoLight believes that their product will be a game changer. Since most of the Indian rural areas do not have access to electricity, any technology that runs on battery power or solar power will be a boon.
"We have actually had a lot of great feedback. We have already got some purchase orders for a few places, around roughly 20 devices each," says Chase Garrett, partner and manufacturing head. "And so we feel that the market there is really going to be accepting of our product."
A product of scale
The device is unique in that it has the potential to treat 1000 babies over its lifetime, something that could prove ideal for the Indian rural setting.
Though the device is yet to hit the market, neonatal specialist Saroja Balan says it will "be very useful," given its low cost and ability to run on solar power.
Phototherapy treatment, when available and properly administered, is remarkably effective. But typically in India, a single functioning machine intended to treat one newborn is commonly used to treat multiple sick babies simultaneously, exposing some to too little healing light and all of them to an increased risk of infection.
In addition, for symptomatic jaundiced newborns in impoverished areas, receiving phototherapy treatment requires travel to the city. This additional treatment, delay, and not to mention the stress of being transported far distances, can have devastating consequences for some. Others never make the trip at all.
The device is designed intentionally to be used by unskilled laborers. In other words: It is not designed to be used exclusively by medical engineers and doctors and nurses.
"It does not have any complex IKEA assembly, or setting up of the device before you treat jaundice, or that you have to wait for time," Vivek says. "Just switch on the device, keep the baby on it ... It can treat jaundice 100 percent."
For now, the device is undergoing pilot testing so that it can hold up to extreme conditions.
"We need to make sure that the device is not defected when someone's dropping it, throwing it around, or if it gets wet and gathers dust," says manufacturing head Garret.
Whether this device "illuminates" a path forward for jaundice treatment will be keenly watched.