Global Health students work to perfect technologies that aid in kangaroo mother care

Eric Liu and Graham Marcy review community healthcare center (CHC) layouts with Professor Kelso during class.

Several students have recently returned from South Africa, where they worked testing various technologies developed for maternal and neonatal healthcare.

As part of the Global Health program, students from various levels – undergrads as well as graduates – are working on developing appropriate technologies for new mothers and babies.  Among the most important of these technologies are instruments designed to aid in kangaroo mother care, a process whereby premature infants are placed against the mother’s chest rather than in incubators.

“We’ve become pretty convinced that it’s the right way to do things,” said Matthew Glucksberg, professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “Incubators are really pretty bad places for babies to be.”

The alternative?

Placing babies on the mother’s chest between the breasts ensures proper temperature regulation for the infant, since this area of the mother’s body automatically adjusts to the child’s needs.  Though an ancient and very natural practice, kangaroo mother care does have its drawbacks.

“The problem, among others, is that this isn’t going to spread until there’s instrumentation,” Glucksberg said.  In other words, there are problems the mother cannot administer to without the aid of technology.

Premature infants can stop breathing spontaneously, for instance.  They need phototherapy for jaundice (the blue light helps bleach out bilirubin, a natural compound that results from the breakdown of blood and can make preemies look yellow).  They need CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, to ensure proper breathing.

This is where project development comes in.

“We’ve been trying to build devices that essentially are a neonatal ICU all on the mother’s chest,” Glucksberg said.

The idea, he explained, is to bring the incubator to the mother and child, in bits and pieces.  Since the mother’s chest is such a better place for the infant to be, administering to various needs – proper breathing, blue light, etc. – should happen without separation.

In response to this need, students have worked on testing various products – a blanket that provides blue light, a breathing apparatus that attaches to the infant’s mouth without producing sores.

As David Kelso explained in a recent video live from Capetown, these projects were designed by previous students and some are in the process of being seriously appraised for their viability and market-readiness.

The program, which has been ongoing for the last six years, encompasses other technologies as well.

“What we do really falls into three general areas,” Kelso said. These areas comprise issues of preventing transmission of HIV from mother to child, saving lives at birth and upskilling healthcare workers.

Kangaroo mother care falls into the second category, but the other two are very important in a country rife with poverty and HIV.

The professors and students who work on these projects hope eventually to pass the results off to people within the healthcare system there.  By making sure the devices fit within already-used methods (like breastfeeding or kangaroo mother care), Northwestern’s contributions have a much greater chance of lasting impact.

“We end up building global capacity instead of just coming in and solving people’s problems for them,” said Michael Diamond, adjunct professor in McCormick’s biomedical engineering department.

Diamond, who has been instrumental to the development of student-driven global health efforts at Northwestern, said he believes strongly in the program’s emphasis on self-reliance.

“There is actually a philosophy behind all these initiatives,” he said.

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