18 February 2013

Africa: Project Eyes Robust Medical Technology for Poor Countries

A Swiss initiative launched this month (7 February) seeks to develop robust versions of key medical products adapted for use in the developing world, starting with a combined X-ray and ultrasound device.

One aim of EssentialTech, launched by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), is to address the WHO statistic that more than 70 per cent of the more complex medical devices sent to Africa are never used due to a lack of adequate infrastructure or maintenance personnel.

Klaus Schönenberger, director of EssentialTech, says there is significant need for reliable medical equipment across the developing world.

"The need is vast and, apart from the poorest countries where this is obvious, there are entire regions in emerging giants such as Brazil, India or China that will also benefit from the technology," he tells SciDev.Net.

EssentialTech's first product will combine X-ray and ultrasound imaging. It is being developed in collaboration with Swiss research institutions and companies.

The scanner will be designed to work in places with only basic medical infrastructure and unreliable electricity supplies. The goal is for it to be able to carry on running for up to five hours in case of power loss. The X-ray unit will use a digital detector rather than film and chemicals, which are more expensive.

Schönenberger believes the scanner could provide 90 per cent of the imaging needs of a typical district hospital, helping to diagnose tuberculosis, fractures and complications related to pneumonia, and to check up on women during pregnancy.

EssentialTech aims to have a prototype scanner within two years, which will be then tested in Cameroon.

Schönenberger says that each scanner will cost less than US$50,000 to buy, run and maintain for ten years, making it ten times cheaper over this period than conventional scanners that do the same job.

Many hospitals in the developing world can get the money to buy equipment, but they often fail to budget for subsequent charges and maintenance costs, he says. EssentialTech hopes that its pay-upfront model will help to address this problem.

David Gierga, a radiation physicist who is leading a Massachusetts General Hospital group that provides clinical and technology support in radiation oncology in Botswana, believes the current problems with unused medical equipment are largely due to a lack of trained specialists.

But he adds that "any new technology certainly needs to be rugged, easy to use and easy to maintain or troubleshoot".

Schönenberger says that EssentialTech aims to impart expertise by transferring some of the assembly process of the scanners to the countries that will use them.

EssentialTech engineers have also started to develop a robust incubator for newborns and a system for treating drinking water.

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