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With 20 million preterm babies born each year, new 'Embrace' is saving lives

Published: Sunday, Dec. 9 2012 10:25 p.m. MST

The little blue "sleeping bag" Linus Liang left at Little Flower was actually a prototype of an extremely low-cost incubator he developed with classmates at Stanford University. The device, which they call the Embrace Warmer, uses something called phase change technology. This technology, originally developed to protect astronauts from the extreme temperatures in space, is able to keep an infant warm up to six hours.

While standard incubators cost approximately $20,000 and require a steady supply of electricity, the Embrace Warmer costs just $200. The machine's design is meant to be intuitively easy to use — so easy, in fact, that a person doesn't need medical training to use it.

Baby Long was placed in the Embrace Warmer within minutes of arriving at Little Flower. Staff were not optimistic about his prognosis but miraculously, the baby made it through the night. They kept Long in the Embrace Warmer for a month. Passing the days enveloped by the warmth of his little blue sleeping bag, Long grew strong and put on weight. This allowed doctors to safely address some of his other medical problems, including operations for his respiratory issues.

Today, Long is a healthy 9-month-old. Notwithstanding a tough start, he is hitting all his developmental markers: he's crawling and sitting up and rolling over on his own. Little Flower staff hope they will be able to find an adoptive family for their first Embrace baby, said Anna Manzur-Allan, director of communications for Embrace.

By providing mothers and caregivers in the developing world a way to keep their smallest newborns warm, Liang and his Embrace co-founders hope to dramatically improve infant mortality and health. Kept warm, many preterm infants in the developing world will be able to grow up healthy, Manzur-Allan said.

Distribution

How to get Embrace Warmers into the hands of the people who need them most will be the organization's challenge going forward, Lunze said. Although Embrace Warmers are just 1 percent of the cost of a traditional incubator, the $200 price tag is still prohibitively expensive for many of the clinics and birth attendants whose patients could benefit most from it.

Embrace has partnered with nonprofit organizations to distribute the devices free to clinics in developing countries around the world. They have placed their warmers in 10 countries, including India, China, Sudan and Zanzibar. In exchange for free Embrace Warmers, clinics provide feedback on the devices as well as records of how they are being used.

While this solution has a lot of potential for children who are born in clinics, more than half of the births in the world occur in home settings, Lunze said. Getting these devices into the hands of women who give birth at home will be key, Lunze said.

Although this challenge is immense, Lunze is optimistic about the resourcefulness of new mothers. "Women in Nepal got together to buy an ambulance for their community," he said. "These women are so creative and came together to find a way to share something they needed." He thinks they could do something similar with Embrace Warmers. "If they know about it and it will improve their babies' chances of survival, they'll find a way to get it."

Email: mwhite@desnews.com

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