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Global Health Challenge:


Babies born prematurely are susceptible to a variety of life-threatening conditions, one of the most common being apnea of prematurity – a recurring condition in which a baby suddenly stops breathing for more than 20 seconds. Approximately 67% of babies who are born at less than 32 weeks gestation experience apnea. Fortunately, infants with apnea usually respond to simple tactile stimulation.  In high resource settings, electronic monitors detect apnea; alarms alert nurses to intervene until breathing resumes.  As the baby grows, apnea of prematurity is self-resolving.  Unfortunately, existing monitors are too expensive for low-resource settings; instead, nurses visually monitor babies.  In settings where one nurse may be caring for 20-30 babies, it is easy for apnea to be missed and premature babies continue to die needlessly.


Rice 360° Solution:


Clinicians at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital and other physicians serving in low resource settings raised the need for a simple, low cost, robust, continuous breathing monitor. In addition, the very low ratio of nurse to patient require a design to be easy to use and ideally to intervene when a baby experiences apnea. Recently, a team of researchers at Rice University and QECH co-developed BreathAlert, a $25 battery-powered monitor that detects and automatically corrects apnea. BreathAlert is a stretchy band placed around a baby’s chest to detect if breathing has stopped. If apnea occurs, coin-sized vibrating motors in the strap are activated and the vibration automatically stimulates the baby to resume breathing.


Current Status and Next Steps:

Through funding from USAID’s Saving Lives at Birth program, BreathAlert is undergoing a 3-aim clinical testing plan to detect respiration, detect apnea and correct apnea. To assess whether BreathAlert stimulates breathing in apneic babies, we first evaluated the ability of BreathAlert to rouse healthy, sleeping babies at local childcare facilities in Houston, Texas. We are currently testing the ability of BreathAlert to accurately detect respiratory rate in medically stable babies at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, TX.  The team is also beginning trials to determine if BreathAlert can effectively detect respiration and apneic episodes in infants at risk for apnea. This study will then be followed by a study to detect and correct apnea in at risk infants at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi.

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