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Incubators and warming blankets: Clemson students look for ways to make sustainable medical supplies

With working incubators scarce in many poor countries, including Tanzania, Clemson University students invented easy-to-make warming blankets for newborns.

HAYDOM, TANZANIA – Taking cues from local basket makers and mechanics, Clemson University researchers are designing new easy-to-make medical products in Tanzania and other low-income countries, an effort they hope will reduce dependence on donated supplies.

One project began when Dilan Ellegala, a former Charleston neurosurgeon, spotted basket weavers outside the gates of Haydom Lutheran Hospital.

Ellegala thought of the sweet-grass weavers on U.S. Highway 17, and then back to patients in the hospital with neck injuries. These patients needed braces, which are typically made of foam, but the hospital had none.

“They usually get them from charities and are constantly running short,” he said. With braces, many patients could leave the hospital within days or weeks of a procedure. Without them, they were stuck in bed for six weeks or more.

Ellegala eventually met Delphine Dean, an assistant professor in Clemson’s bioengineering department. Dean and her students then worked with a local Tanzanian basket maker to weave a prototype neck brace, which is currently being tested.

“I think it was a big ‘aha’ moment for a couple of students to see that their work is actually being implemented,” Dean said.

At the time, her class also was looking for ways to improve incubators for premature babies.

Partly because of failing incubators, infant mortality in Tanzania is 10 times higher than in wealthier countries. Without working incubators, many hospitals keep room temperatures high, making wards ripe for infections. In a hospital in Mwanza, an outbreak swept through a ward, killing 30 of the unit’s 36 premature babies.

Instead of designing an expensive new incubator, Dean’s students focused on creating an electric warming blanket. The blankets had heart monitors and rechargeable batteries in case the power went off. They were simple and cheap to make.

“The whole idea was to make something that can be made in the community with parts that can be replaced,” Dean said, adding that her students accompanied local Tanzanians into town to make sure they could buy parts locally. “You can actually build it there,” she said.

And the price tag was between $25 and $50, much less than an incubator, which can cost $1,300 or more new. Her students also are now working on a low-cost glucometer, which could be assembled in Tanzania using a standard ink-jet desk printer, and a blood-loss monitor. A group of her students may go back to Tanzania this summer.

“They come back and talk to other students, who get excited and want to get involved.”

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