Topic: Frugal design brings medical innovations to communities that lack resources during the pandemic
Dr. Msandeni Chiume Kayuni found herself in the middle of a supply crisis as COVID-19 spread to Africa in April 2020. As head of Pediatrics at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi, her team faced a critical shortage of N95 and regular surgical face masks. Nurses and doctors were striking.
“We had members of hospital staff put their tools down because they did not feel it was safe to practice,” she told us in an interview.
Ingenuity kicked in. The Malawi team purchased raincoats from the local market to use as personal protective equipment when they could not afford appropriate gowns that cost three times as much. Unlike disposable gowns, the rain gear could easily be sanitized in bleach and reused.
Worldwide, as the global supply chain for basic PPE, diagnostic tests and equipment to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients buckled under the strain, medical personnel improvised and engineers began developing solutions almost overnight. Engineering students used university-based maker spaces to invent and produce new technologies – face shields, automated hand washing stations, diagnostic testing equipment and respiratory support equipment – that allowed health care workers to safely deliver effective care.
As engineers working in the U.S. and Malawi to develop effective and affordable medical devices for low-resource communities, we routinely practice and teach this level of resourcefulness, dubbed “frugal design.”
Medical personnel reused available N95 masks, intended to be used once, for weeks or months, which required innovative ways to disinfect them, including heaters, gas sterilizers and ultraviolet light.
UVC – short-wavelength ultraviolet light – kills or inactivates viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In the pandemic, scientists set up UVC systems in spare rooms at hospitals to sanitize masks.
The University of Nebraska Medical Center equipped a room with UVC light towers and coated the walls with reflective foil to maximize the dose of UVC light. Dirty masks are clipped to rows of clothesline strung across the UVC room. An operator outside the room started the lights, and a detector in the room ensured the masks had received a virus-killing dose of light. Masks can be disinfected and reused multiple times without damaging their integrity.
Engineers in Houston, Malawi and Tanzania worked together to reduce the cost of room-based UVC disinfection systems to less than US$800, and several systems are now installed in hospitals in Malawi and Tanzania. Engineers at other locations built disinfecting stations by adapting UV lights in the hoods normally used to grow cells in culture or by repurposing the UV light in an aquarium sanitizer.
Topic Discussed: Frugal design brings medical innovations to communities that lack resources during the pandemic