Rethinking Healthcare

GE Healthcare to distribute 'infant warmers' in rural India

GE Healthcare to distribute 'infant warmers' in rural India

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Tiny sleeping bags with warmed, melted wax could save thousands of babies from hypothermia.

General Electric is partnering with Embrace – a nonprofit based in San Francisco – to distribute a low-cost infant-warming sleeping bag that will keep babies warm for hours without electricity.

According to the World Health Organization, one of the major causes of infant mortality is hypothermia, when body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The nearly 20 million low-birth-weight babies born every year are particularly susceptible, and about 4 million die within the first month of life.

"These babies are so tiny they don't have enough fat to regulate their own body temperature," says Embrace co-founder and CEO, Jane Chen. "In fact, room temperature feels like freezing cold water to them."

The Embrace Infant Warmer is a small sleeping bag, not that unlike those you see in strollers on New York sidewalks in the wintertime.

But the key is a wax that regulates the baby’s temperature. It’s stored inside a sealed pouch inserted within the nylon sleeping bag and can be melted by a heater (electric and otherwise) or hot water.

Once warmed, the wax maintains a consistent 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit for 4 hours without electricity.

It’s reusable, waterproof, hypoallergenic, can work without electricity, easy to disinfect, and provides the comfort of a water bed.

“We are thrilled to have GE Healthcare as a partner in this endeavor to save and improve the lives of babies around the world,” Chen says. “GE Healthcare brings both expertise and global reach to this partnership, and shares our passion to change the world through technological innovations.”

At less than $200 per warmer (or about 100 times cheaper than traditional hospital-grade incubators), the product's makers hope to save thousands, maybe even millions, of babies.

A few years ago, Chen and other Stanford Institute of Design students in a course called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability were asked to come up with a lower-cost incubator for premature newborn babies in Nepal. During a trip to Kathmandu, they found that the majority of premature Nepalese infants were born not in cities, but in slums and villages far away from hospitals with incubators.

From that experience, the team realized they needed to come up with something that is inexpensive, transportable, sanitizable, and able to work without electricity.

In March 2011, this device will be distributed in India – the country with the most premature and low-birth-weight babies in the world. By 2013, Chen expects the warmers will be able to save more than 100,000 babies and prevent illness for as many as 800,000. The team plans to expand to other developing nations in future years.

GE Healthcare is a $16 billion unit of General Electric Company (NYSE: GE).

Image: Embrace

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure