Birth asphyxia, sometimes also referred to as perinatal or neonatal asphyxia, is a condition resulting from the failure to establish breathing at birth. Globally, it accounts for about 900 000 deaths each year while here in Kenya, it accounts for 31% of all neonatal hospital admissions and leads to 10,000 deaths annually. According to UNICEF, birth asphyxia is the leading cause of neonatal mortality in Kenya. 

While not all infants succumb to asphyxia, those that survive develop high risk of lifelong complications such as autism and other neurodegenerative diseases, mental retardation and epilepsies. The economic, emotional and physical burden of caring for such a child usually spells disaster for families, more so for the poor.

The introduction of the Miracradle neonatal bed into Kenya late last year, offered a glimpse of hope for infants who have suffered asphyxia and their families. Invented in India through a frugal innovation approach, the Miracradle employs phase-change materials (PCM) to deliver therapeutic hypothermia (TH), a treatment method that has been shown to treat asphyxia. 

The term frugal innovation is used to refer to a method of developing clever and often cheap solutions or products to solve tough problems yet employing limited resources. This as opposed to traditional product development approaches that involve huge R&D budgets and processes that strain scarce natural resources. The Miracradle perfectly fits this description. It’s can be up to 90% cheaper than comparable devices both in terms of acquisition and operation. It requires minimal power supply and can be used 500 times before replacement of PCM’s hence treatment costs can be as low as $10 per patient. In addition, it’s portable due to its light weight and can be easily transported. Comparable technologies require dedicated power and consumables for every treatment episode. 

A study to test the Miracradle that concluded early this year at the Kenyatta National Hospital found that the device was able to reduce severity of asphyxia from severe or moderate to mild or normal in some cases.
These results which were presented at the recent Kenya Paediatric Association Annual Conference mean that infants who suffer from birth asphyxia now have an effective affordable treatment option that can save lives and deter the onset of debilitating conditions like autism. 

Sist. Mollyne Otieno of the Miracradle for Kenya study team, amazed at the outcomes of the treatment said that babies who they expected to die, ‘’…were literally coming back to life.’’ 

On the user experience from the nurses end, Sister Josephine Bariu said, " We were curious to learn, initially we were skeptical to put young babies in cool temperatures having been trained to keep babies warm as opposed to putting them on ice however we found it to be beneficial to the babies."

Frugal innovations like the Miracradle are key in achieving SDG 3's agenda to reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1000 live births and end preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age by 2030. The study has shown that it can scale sustainably and is suitable for low resource settings.

By Moses Waweru, Senior Program Manager, Villgro Kenya