Car Parts Could Save Premature Infants in Developing World

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Every year, millions of premature newborns in the developing world die from ailments easily defeated by an incubator.

Unfortunately, incubators that provide premature infants with the body temperature regulation, climate control and quiet they need cost around $40,000. Even when rich countries like the United States donate incubators, the machines often end up broken and unusable within five years because the technical skill to operate and repair them is sorely lacking.

This is why Cimit, a nonprofit consortium of teaching hospitals and engineering schools in Boston, decided to construct and produce a low-cost incubator using parts that can be easily replaced, even in the poorest countries in the world.

So they turned to cars.

Cimit hired a team of engineers who stripped a Toyota 4Runner of “all the parts that weren’t an incubator.” What was left? A pair of headlights to serve as a heat source, an air filter to control the immediate climate, a car door alarm to notify staff if there’s trouble. The best part is that any local auto mechanic can be trained to fix the machine.

Considering that the smallest and sickest newborns (usually the ones with low birth weights that can be saved by an incubator) account for 60% to 80% of neonatal deaths, the car-parts incubator has enormous potential to make a difference.

Still, there are hurdles. The hospitals and engineers that put this project together must find business partners and capital: Manufacturing, distribution and regulatory approval are all hurdles that must be cleared. As one of the incubator’s designers, Timothy Prestero, so aptly pointed out to The New York Times, “There aren’t many examples of a successfully scaled product to serve the poor.”

Looking Under the Hood and Seeing an Incubator (The New York Times)

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