For the past decade, a committed group of scientists at Rice University have been working to help improve the survival outcomes of babies born in Africa by improving basic neonatal technology in hospitals. That work, led by recent MacArthur "genius" grant winner Rebecca Richards-Kortum, has picked up many accolades over the years, and it appears the Rice 360 Institute for Global Health might be in line for one more.
On Wednesday, the MacArthur Foundation announced the 360 group is one of eight finalists to win a $100 million grant as part of its 100&Change competition. The eight were chosen from more than 1,900 applicants. The foundation plans to select the winner this fall.
"A million African babies die each year, and we know that 85 percent of those deaths could be prevented with relatively simple technologies that keep babies warm, help them breathe and help doctors diagnose and manage infections and other conditions," said Richards-Kortum, director of the 360 team that includes physicians, engineers and business and entrepreneurial experts from three continents.
If the group wins, it will use the money to continue the work it has been doing in Africa and launch a new initiative to deploy a 17-piece Newborn Essential Solutions and Technology (NEST) package, which is an assortment of life-saving technologies, such as tools to monitor labor, syringe pumps, apnea alarms and suction machines. Already, the group has developed a breathing machine that's now used in more than 20 countries called the Pumani bCPAP.
Part of the problem with neonatal care in Africa is that some countries have poor or intermittent power supplies. In other cases, machines in neonatal intensive care units are not up-to-date.
"Every hospital I've visited in sub-Saharan Africa has a room I call the equipment graveyard, which is filled with expensive, donated medical equipment that is broken beyond repair simply because it was not designed to work in Africa," said Maria Oden, Rice 360 co-director.
But the Rice 360 group is working to change that, often by offering their engineering prowess to come up with inexpensive, easy-to-replicate fixes.