Will GPS and biometrics on ultrasound machines end sex determination in India? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 03.12.2014
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Will GPS and biometrics on ultrasound machines end sex determination in India?

Ultrasound is vital for pre-natal care. But it is also often misused for sex determination in India, with parents terminating pregnancies if their baby is a girl. New technology could stop the practice.

Sex determination tests are common but illegal in India. Often, pregnancies are terminated if the sex of the child is not what the parents want.

But engineers at the Indian Institute of Technology have been trying to come up with a way to make it harder for doctors to carry out such procedures - even if it's at the request of the parents.

They have built a machine that features a GPS tracker so its whereabouts are known at all times. It is the first step, they say, in eradicating handheld and portable ultrasound machines, which are used for the illegal tests.

Their machine also digitally masks genitals.

Professor Uday B Desai, director of the Hyderabad-based research center, oversees the two-year long project.

"This would be very important for India," says Professor Desai. "Because of a certain misuse in the country, we are also looking at technology to prevent that misuse. So by doing some image processing, if we can block the genitals, people will not be able to misuse this device."

Image blocking

So by blocking details on an ultrasound image - such as a baby's genital region - it should be virtually impossible for doctors and parents to determine a baby's sex in the first place.

Students building a new ultrasound prototype in India

A new social engineering: these students hope to change Indian society with their device

The business of sex determination and sex selection is common in many parts of India.

Officials have been slow to tackle the growing number of unregistered, and illegal clinics, where sex determination often takes place.

Most often, it is female fetuses which are aborted.

Some studies estimate that 250,000 female fetuses are aborted every year.

There have been government campaigns that try to change attitudes, but female feticide continues.

Social impact

At the laboratory, P. Rajyalakshmi is one of the electrical engineers working on the project to develop the new ultrasound machine.

"The device is going to be smarter - many decisions can be taken on the device itself," says Rajyalakshmi. "And since we are integrating smart signal processing, fetal genital masking will not be a problem, and [may have] add a great societal impact."

The ratio of boys to girls in India has long been a concern.

There are more boys than girls, because of a high preference in Indian society for sons.

It's a problem highlighted by a United Nations report. And it's one that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed in his Independence Day Speech in August.

Indian Prime Minister making the 2014 Independence Day Speech

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his 2014 Independence Day Speech

Modi said he wanted to know who was creating this imbalance in society, and appealed to doctors to stop killing female fetuses.

Technology changes society?

But sometimes politics isn't enough to change society. Sometimes you need technology to intervene.

"Look at ultrasound as the future stethoscope. With wireless technology, I can quickly communicate images from a rural area to urban doctors, who can look at them, make a diagnosis, and quickly tell me what to do," says Desai.

"The whole idea was how we can diagnose illnesses which may take place in areas where there are not enough doctors. When we started working on this, people came back and said, There is a social problem in using this ultrasound device. That is where we started looking at the solution of biometric markers and blockages."

Vivek Akula, an engineering student working on the project, says their ultrasound machine is tailor-made for the India market.

Students building a new ultrasound prototype in India

The engineers hope to attract commercial backers within the next year

"We are targeting low cost ultrasound machines," says Akula. "We have seen very big products that are very costly and I hardly find them being used right now. So if this system is commercially available, then it will be of low-cost and it will be useful for many people."

The project is funded by Britain's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and India's Department of Science and Technology.

But the team is on the lookout for commercial backers.

"As proof of concept, we are able to capture and upload data to the cloud after appropriate authentication [of the user], and we are also able to get the GPS of where the device is. So whatever we have wanted to achieve, we have achieved in the lab at a prototype level," says Rajyalakshmi. "I think in six to eight months, if someone is really interested, they can contact us. We plan to patent this, so we can share our ideas and it can go as a commercial product."

Public health officials and civil society organizations estimate that by 2021 one million girls a year could be lost in India due to female feticide. That is, unless India succeeds in stopping the practice before then.

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