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Child Pneumonia in sub-Saharan Africa 
Pneumonia is the greatest cause of death for children globally. About 16% of deaths among children under 5 relate to this deadly condition. Every year, 500,000 cases of child pneumonia in sub-Saharan Africa occur within this age group. Many of these fatalities occur due to incorrect or delayed diagnoses. Brian Turyabagye, a Ugandan inventor, has created a solution for these inconsistencies; enter  “MamaOpe,” a biomedical smart jacket.

What is Pneumonia?

Pneumonia is a type of respiratory disease that primarily affects the lungs. Within the lungs are small sacks called alveoli, which fill with air when one is healthy. However, when a person is sick with pneumonia, pus and fluid convolute the alveoli, making it very difficult to breathe. Minor side effects include chest pain, incessant coughing and fever.

Child Pneumonia in Sub-Saharan Africa

Despite the tragic death rates due to pneumonia, medical professionals often misdiagnose it as malaria. Particularly in remote areas, malaria is also common and has similar symptoms to pneumonia. Many times, medical professionals do not discover the pneumonia prognosis until after a child has died. Furthermore, many communities in sub-Saharan Africa lack the proper equipment and medicine to adequately provide treatment. Although pneumonia is the most dangerous disease among children, it receives very low funding. According to UNICEF, “for every global health dollar spent in 2011, only [two] cents went to pneumonia.”

Solution: MamaOpe

Ugandan inventor Turyabagye created a biomedical smart jacket that increases the speed and accuracy of detecting pneumonia. “MamaOpe” means ‘mother’s hope’; the device received the name to honor the 27,000 Ugandan children who die of pneumonia each year. Through the utilization of this jacket, treatment can begin before the patient is too far gone. While Turyabagye invented this jacket, MamaOpe Medicals, of which Turyabagye is a co-founder, represents it. This organization continues to research and create digital solutions for respiratory diseases.

How Does it Work?

The child wears the jacket and a health care worker operates the corresponding controller unit. All it takes is the simple push of a button, and within three minutes, the results display. The device can detect signs unique to pneumonia, such as rate of breath, the sound of lungs and temperature. This technology avoids human error and provides an accurate diagnosis three to four times faster than a medical professional. Eventually, the goal is to program the jacket to work long distance. With this added feature, the patient does not need to travel to a doctor’s office and doctors can monitor the results from a distance.

The Effects

Currently, most major hospitals in Uganda have implemented this jacket. Moreover, expectations determine that the jacket will help at least 50,000 pneumonia patients each year. This invention eventually won first prize at [email protected] Africa in 2017. Moreover, CNN ranked it as one of the top 12 African innovations that could change the world. Ultimately, while pneumonia is a complex disease, MamaOpe is an effective start for lowering rates of child pneumonia in sub-Saharan Africa.

 – Ella Kaplun
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

MamaOpe smart jacketIn 2014, Olivia Koburongo lost her grandmother to pneumonia after she was misdiagnosed with malaria by doctors in Uganda. In response to this tragic misdiagnosis, Koburongo and Brian Turyabagye decided to put their engineering skills to the test and solve the problem of pneumonia misdiagnosis and slow diagnoses, a problem which is common in many African countries. With the help of Dr. Cosmas Mwikirize, a professor at Makerere University, they designed the MamaOpe smart jacket, a “biomedical application for early diagnosis and continuous monitoring of pneumonia patients,” according to the company’s website.

Effects of Slow Diagnoses and Misdiagnoses of Pneumonia

Studies show that patients are often wrongfully diagnosed with malaria. Over-diagnosis of malaria means that other life-threatening conditions, such as pneumonia, are not treated. Misdiagnoses end up contributing to the death rate associated with other ailments, including pneumonia. Children, in particular, are adversely affected as pneumonia accounts for 15% of deaths among children under the age of five. Every year, one million children under the age of five die from pneumonia. Pneumonia causes more deaths than malaria, diarrhea and HIV/AIDs combined. In 2015, more than 490,000 children died from pneumonia in sub-Saharan Africa.

Between 2001 and 2016, childhood pneumonia deaths had fallen by only 50% relative to an 85% decrease in childhood deaths due to measles and a 60% decrease in childhood deaths due to malaria, tetanus and AIDS. According to UNICEF, slow or limited progress in the diagnosis and treatment of pneumonia is associated with poor funding for preventative care and treatment management. In 2011, for every dollar spent on global health, just two cents went toward pneumonia.

MamaOpe Provides a Solution

The MamaOpe smart jacket, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Africa Prize for Engineering in 2017, is designed specifically for children from the ages of zero to five who are particularly vulnerable to pneumonia. “Mama” is shorthand for “Mother,” and “Ope” means “Hope.” MamaOpe thus signifies “Hope for the Mother.” It is also a reference to the 27,000 children in Uganda who die of pneumonia annually.

In order to monitor patients’ chests and heartrates, listen to their lungs and check their breathing rates and temperatures, MamaOpe utilizes a stethoscope, which is embedded in a jacket that patients wear. The jacket covers the patients’ entire chests and sides. It is made from polymer, a material selected to reduce the risk of spreading infection when the jacket is shared among patients.

The jacket itself is connected to an android application on a mobile device via Bluetooth. The technology helps eliminate human error. According to the company, measurements made by the device assist doctors in diagnosing pneumonia three to four times faster than when doctors use a normal stethoscope. MamaOpe displays the results after three minutes of tracking a patient’s vitals.

Hope for the Future

The MamaOpe smart jacket is still in its prototype and testing phase but reports suggest that the company plans to bring the product to market in 2021. The current cost of the jacket is $60 and the price will likely decrease when full-scale manufacturing begins and the jacket tests successfully in Uganda.

As MamaOpe strives to prevent cases of pneumonia misdiagnosis and decrease the child death rate associated with pneumonia, the company is proving just how important innovation can be in combatting deadly illnesses. If governments ramp up support for pneumonia prevention, management and treatment, the lives of hundreds of thousands of children can be saved annually.

–  Zoe Engels
Photo: Flickr