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Richards-Kortum: We can help more children be able to celebrate Mother's Day


When Emily Johnson walked across the stage Friday at Rice University's commencement, her mom Mary's face beamed with pride. This is the dream of mothers everywhere - to see their children finish college healthy, happy and ready to make a difference.

Though she just graduated from college, in many ways Emily's life has come full circle. When she was born six weeks too early in a hospital in Englewood, Colo., Emily was placed on a breathing machine called CPAP, short for "continuous positive airway pressure." CPAP blows a bit of air and essentially props open premature babies' lungs so they don't have to fight for every breath. Because CPAP was available at Emily's birth hospital, she lived, and she and her mom were able to reminisce this week about the thrill Emily got when she received her confetti-filled acceptance letter from Rice four years ago. They also were able to marvel that Emily's time at Rice included working to help bring CPAP to hospitals in one of the world's poorest nations.

Not every child is as fortunate as Emily; prematurity is the leading cause of death for children worldwide, and 1 million African babies die needlessly from it each year. As a freshman and sophomore, Emily spent summers in Malawi as an intern for Rice 360° Institute for Global Health, a program working to end preventable newborn deaths in Africa. She saw first-hand the difference that access to affordable, effective medical technology like CPAP can make. She saw babies so small that their entire hands were no bigger than her thumb. She designed education materials to help nurses use and to help technicians maintain a low-cost version of CPAP called Pumani, which was invented by Rice undergraduates. Pumani was first deployed in Malawi, and today it is used in 25 countries. Hospitals in developing countries can buy 10 Pumanis for the same cost as the one that saved Emily's life 22 years ago.

Pumani was just the beginning. The solution to preventable newborn deaths is a suite of low-cost technologies that solve the main problems for preemies - breathing, warmth, feeding and infection. Together with young graduates like Emily, Rice 360° is designing affordable, rugged and effective technologies to save small and sick babies in Africa. Our proposal to scale this solution, in partnership with the University of Malawi, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and 3rd Stone Design in California, was recently named a semifinalist in the MacArthur Foundation's 100&Change competition, which will award $100 million to a project that will meaningfully address a critical problem of our time.

This Mother's Day, Emily is thankful for her newly earned degree and the loving parents who've helped her. She's also thankful for the opportunity to build a world where her story - from preemie to young adult to change-maker - is realized over and over again. "I am alive today as a result of access to technology, and I want to spread that access to others," she told me this week.

Mary, like every mom, wants her child to grow, learn and make the world a better place. Helping babies live past day one is the first step. On Mother's Day, even as we celebrate mothers like Mary, we should remember and mourn the mothers who lost babies too soon - and for entirely preventable reasons. We owe it to them and to one another to give every child the same chance at life.

Richards-Kortum is Rice University's Malcolm Gillis University Professor, director of Rice 360° Institute for Global Health, professor of bioengineering and professor of electrical and computer engineering.

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