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Low-Cost Incubator May Save More Babies

  • George Putic

Each year, about one million babies throughout the world die of complications due to premature birth. Many of them could have been saved if given access to an incubator. But this expensive device is sorely lacking in developing countries. A young British researcher says he has found a solution -- a low-cost inflatable incubator.

Doctors say many expectant mothers in developing countries give birth prematurely, especially in refugee camps, largely because of poor diet and unhealthy living conditions.

Premature birth is the biggest killer of children worldwide. Because these tiny babies are born before their lungs are fully developed, they are more susceptible to often deadly infections. But they could survive if placed in an incubator, where they would continue to develop in the closed chamber and warm, controlled environment.

However with a price tag of around $50,000, incubators are out of reach even for some hospitals.

Design engineering student James Roberts, 23, of Britain says his $400 inflatable incubator may help solve this problem.

“It's basically an insulated piece of air, so it's like the difference between double and single glazing, so it's easier to keep the inside at a stable heat environment, heat temperature," he said.

The inflated incubator is collapsible and when folded resembles an ordinary travel bag.

It is powered through a regular electrical line, but Roberts said he has found a solution in case there is a power outage, which often happens in refugee camps.

“I thought 'why not car batteries?' There's loads of cars out there, they're pretty readily available. So you can plug this into a car battery. It will run for 24 hours and then when the mains [regular electrical line] comes back on, the mains can then charge this battery, and then that can run the incubator," he said.

Roberts' won the $47,000 James Dyson Award earlier this year for his incubator design. He said the project is still in the development phase, but the prize money will help him start a company for the mass manufacturing of inflatable incubators.

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