A twenty-year effort has lead to an insanely cheap $1.25 breathing device to treat childhood pneumonia. In fact, it has the potential of saving close to one million children’s lives annually who suffer from the deadly infection.
Invented by Bangladesh doctor, Dr. Mohammod Jobayer Chisti, it consists of a shampoo bottle, plastic tubing and an oxygen mask.
Last year, pneumonia claimed the lives of 920,000 children under the age of five. It’s the result of a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection in the lungs, which causes pus to build up in the alveoli, the oxygenation agents we rely on. To counter the effects, the body makes the lungs work harder and faster, which is what causes breathlessness.
The problem is that, in poor countries infants tend to be malnourished. As such, their tiny bodies just don’t have the energy to keep up the laboured breathing for very long and they tend to succumb. Ventilators make this easier, but they cost upwards of $15,000 which is why poorer hospitals use just a face mask or tubes placed near the nose. They might help in a healthier child, but they don’t make it any easier for a malnourished one to breathe.
The trajectory of Dr. Chisti’s career was cemented in stone while an intern in a Bangladash hospital where he witnessed the death of three children in one night, all critically ill with pneumonia. He could not save them because the hospital lacked the expensive ventilator needed to prevent their tiny lungs from collapsing. The hopelessness of that loss was transformed into action to save future vulnerable lives from pneumonia.
He got his inspiration when working in Melbourne, Australia where he worked a complex ventilator machine called a bubble-CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) that prevented the collapse of the lungs. Sadly, these devices are rather expensive (about $6000 each), so when he returned to Bangladesh and took up a role at the Dhaka Hospital of the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, he set about designing a cheaper option.
With the help of a colleague, he took an empty shampoo bottle, added water, and inserted a series of simple tubes. The children inhale oxygen from a tank and then exhale into the tubes, which blows bubbles in the water. The pressure from the bubbles keeps the small air sacs of the lungs open and prevents them from collapsing. Dr. Chisti tested it on four or five random patients and saw marked developments in the patients’ well-being within a few hours.
In 2015, he published the results of a two-year trial, which showed that “children who received oxygen by bubble CPAP had significantly lower rates of death than the children who received oxygen by low-flow oxygen therapy.
These findings prompted the hospital in Dhaka to switch to the shampoo bottle method, and they are now saving 75% more lives of children suffering from pneumonia, and have reduced spending on pneumonia treating by 90%. The $1.25 cost of materials is affordable and the more efficient use of oxygen, cut the hospital’s annual oxygen bill from $30,000 to just $6,000.
Dr Chisti and his team now aim to conduct more trials in Ethiopia. If all goes well, it’s possible this little plastic-bottle ventilator could spread to poor hospitals around the world, saving hundreds of thousands of children in the process.