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A low-cost jaundice detector in newborns has passed first testing in Africa

AP/Sunday Alamba
Newborn triplets Isaac, Treasure and Samuel sleep in a ward of the Lagos Island Maternity Hospital in Lagos, Nigeria, Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. Amid the…
By Yomi Kazeem
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

A clinical study of a low-cost jaundice detector is inspiring hope that a significant number of the 1.16 million babies that die in their first month of life in Africa can be saved.

BiliSpec, the handheld, battery-powered detector, invented by a team of students at Rice University, Texas, can diagnose the ailment by “quantifying serum bilirubin levels from a small drop of whole blood.” The detector represents significant improvement on the current reality in many hospitals across the continent where health workers typically diagnose jaundice only by gauging the pigmentation of a newborn’s skin. More accurate diagnosis involves the use of advanced medical equipment which is likely too expensive for many hospitals in Africa.

Crucially for many hospitals on the continent, BiliSpec tests cost far less than a dollar (5 cents) and can be done in two minutes, likely making jaundice diagnosis for newborns on the continent much more efficient.

The clinical study was based on tests conducted on 68 patients in a hospital in Malawi between February and March this year. It showed that BiliSpec has ”comparable accuracy to the more expensive laboratory tests found in high-resource settings.” Pelham Keahey, co-author of the study, says the next step is  “a larger, two-year follow-up study of efficacy and usability.” The study will now be expanded to five hospitals in Malawi as the team chases its goal of reducing the number of newborn deaths in African hospitals by half within 10 years. The team has already raised $750,000 in funding as it pushes to develop “a commercial-ready device.”

In general, jaundice can affect “up to 60% of full term babies” but newborns in Africa are 100 times more likely to die from jaundice than babies in the United States. As newborns typically do not have fully developed livers, their bodies are unable to process excess bilirubin, a substance created by the breakdown of red blood cells. A buildup of the substance in a newborn’s bloodstream results in yellow pigmentation of the skin. In cases where jaundice is detected, treatment can include phototherapy, blood transfusion or frequent feedings (this encourages frequent excretion which also helps remove bilirubin from the body). But if left untreated, it can result in brain damage and death.

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