When a four-year-old in Nigeria or Uganda shows up at a rural clinic with a high fever and trouble breathing, a health worker might diagnose them with malaria. But the symptoms happen to overlap with pneumonia–a disease that kills nearly a million children under the age of five every year–and is often missed during the diagnosis.
A new smart jacket called the Mamaope (which translates to “mother’s hope”) is designed to help diagnose pneumonia patients more accurately. Sensors inside the garment measure breathing rate, the sound of the lungs, and temperature, then transfer the information to a mobile phone application for a diagnosis.
“Most visual signs [of pneumonia] are similar to malaria’s, and differentiating this comes with advanced learning for medical workers, which is not common with people in remote areas,” Brian Turyabagye, a 24-year-old Ugandan engineer who developed the jacket with Olivia Koburongo and Besufekad Shifferaw at Makerere University, tells to Co.Exist.
While doctors or health workers typically use a stethoscope to check a patient’s lungs from the chest and back, pneumonia is often also detectable on the sides of the body, which the sensors in the jacket can monitor. It also measures oxygen saturation and breathing rate. The app uses an algorithm to analyze the results and diagnose the disease in three to five minutes–around four times faster than a doctor could.
Because the jacket feels like a regular article of clothing, it’s also less likely to scare kids, who can get spooked by medical equipment. “We considered that children can easily be frightened by any device foreign to their bodies,” says Turyabagye. “This, in turn, can cause them to cry, thus increasing the breathing rate, making it hard for the health workers to count an actual rate.”
The jacket doesn’t solve every problem–many children also die of pneumonia because they don’t have access to antibiotics. Though pneumonia medication costs less than $1, fewer than 20% of children in need receive it, according to the Uganda Pediatrics Association. But in areas where the medicine is available, it could save lives.
The Mamaope jacket will undergo nationwide tests at health centers and hospitals in Uganda this month, and should be certified for use by the spring.
[Photos: Brett Elloff /Proof Africa/Royal Academy of Engineering]