Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lifesavers for the Third World

Sep 29, 2011

Yesterday, The Straits Times reported on a cheaper alternative in Thailand to the cervical smear test being used. Today, we take a look at other innovations on offer to poorer countries as they battle to improve health conditions.

Liquid Lens

A cheap lens made of liquid has helped tens of thousands of adults in the developing world to gain clearer vision.

Dr Joshua Silver, an atomic physicist from Oxford University, designed a 'liquid lens' consisting of a fluid-filled packet made of two flexible transparent membranes. By draining the liquid, the user can adjust the focus of the lens.

Working with a British government grant, he developed the liquid lens into a practical pair of adjustable eyeglasses, complete with dials on the arms that allow the focus to be changed. Today, more than 30,000 pairs are in use by adults worldwide.


About 1.5 million children die of diarrhoea each year because they do not have access to clean drinking water.

A Swiss company called Vestergaard came up with a cheap and simple water purifier system called LifeStraw, which has been used in Myanmar, Mozambique and Haiti.

It allows about 1,000 litres of dirty water to be filtered, which is enough to keep a person hydrated for a year.

A family-sized version of LifeStraw has also been developed and nearly a million such purifiers were donated to Kenya this year.

Sari-cloth water filter

Poverty-stricken villagers in rural Bangladesh have found that the secret to disease-free water lies in a humble, everyday garment: the sari.

Rural women often pour sweetened drinks through a piece of sari cloth to get rid of leaves and insects. But this method is useless against filtering disease-causing micro-organisms.

Researchers then found that simply cleaning and folding the sari twice helps to strain out most of the microscopic plankton in water.

Over an 18-month period, they found that the rate of cholera was reduced by about half in the 27 villages that adopted this method.

PeePoo bag

It may look like an ordinary plastic bag but the PeePoo bag is, in fact, a single-use biodegradable toilet for the developing world.

After it is used, the bag is knotted and then buried or sold back to the manufacturer. The bag is lined with urea crystals, which help transform the waste into fertiliser.

The United Nations estimates that 40 per cent of the world's population does not have access to a toilet, leading to contaminated water and diseases such as diarrhoea.

Currently, about 6,000 PeePoo bags are produced every day and distributed in slums in Nairobi, Kenya.

Mosquito-killing toxic nectar

Scientists have developed the equivalent of a honey trap for mosquitoes - an irresistible nectar that attracts the insects, then poisons them.

A team from Hebrew University in Jerusalem concocted an array of nectar poisons known as Attractive Toxic Sugar Baits that are easy to make, environmentally friendly and inexpensive. Tests in Israel and West Africa showed that the baits wiped out the mosquito population by 90 per cent. Even better, they nearly eliminated older female mosquitoes, which are the most dangerous because only the females bite humans.


Many women in poor countries give birth at home or in small clinics which are ill-equipped to deal with emergencies such as haemorrhaging which can cause death.

LifeWrap, a segmented wetsuit which fastens around the legs and torso with Velcro, could change all that. The skin-tight suit squeezes oxygenated blood back to the heart, lungs and brain of the haemorrhaging mother.

Early trials in Egypt showed it could reduce childbirth deaths by over 50 per cent. But at US$259 (S$330) a suit, it is not yet cheap enough to become widespread in remote villages.

Vitamin sprinkles for babies

Babies cannot swallow vitamin pills, but in the developing world, many of them desperately need the nutritional boost these tablets can provide.

So, Dr Stanley Zlotkin, a physician in Toronto, came up with Sprinkles - vitamins for infants in a flavourless powdered form that can be added to any cooked food.

For a couple of dollars a year, the powders can prevent disorders caused by vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Last year, about 350,000 people received micronutrient packets, such as Sprinkles, according to the World Food Programme.

Postage stamp-size diagnostic test

A cheap diagnostic test, conducted on paper the size of a postage stamp, could be used to screen liver damage sufferers in developing countries.

Dr George Whitesides, of Diagnostics For All, designed paper treated with dried proteins and chemically triggered dyes to change colour if an unwell person's blood is dotted on to it. The test takes 15 minutes and can be read by an untrained eye.

Although it has not been widely implemented in developing countries yet, its developers say it proved more than 90 per cent accurate on blood samples previously screened by the laboratory of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre.


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