Bill and Melinda Gates team up with Israeli tech company to help African children Featured

Bill and Melinda Gates team up with Israeli tech company to help African children

Imagine a high-tech crib that can predict when a baby is about to experience a life-threatening emergency, hours before it actually happens. And what if that crib could alert nearby medical staff to intervene?

That futuristic bedding is now getting installed at a children's hospital in Africa and comes courtesy of a trifecta of organizations seeking to improve the lives of infants: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the international nonprofit Save the Children and an Israeli tech company called EarlySense. The three groups have joined together for a new pilot program at the Aga Khan University teaching hospital and the Pumwani Maternity Hospital, both in Kenya.

"Ideally, if this works well, we hope to expand this rather quickly," EarlySense CEO Avner Halperin told From The Grapevine. "You see a real need and there's a real opportunity to make a difference in these African hospitals."

The EarlySense device is simply placed under the mattress and monitors the baby while it's sleeping – looking for changes in breathing patterns and even cardiac rates. It can do all this wirelessly, without actually being connected to the baby.

Halperin and his fellow co-founders launched EarlySense back in 2004 to help with another medical issue – childhood asthma. Indeed, three of the four co-founders all had kids suffering from asthma. The EarlySense monitor could be placed under the child's mattress and analyze the child's vitals while he sleeps. Since asthma is a chronic condition, the sensor would build up data each night, and could eventually determine even the slightest change in the child it was monitoring. When the child woke up, the EarlySense monitor could actually predict the likelihood of a severe asthma attack happening later in the day.

"If you can predict the onset, then it's very effective and you can prevent over 90% of hospitalizations," Halperin explained. "So we were looking for a solution to provide an early warning of chronic condition deterioration." What's more, their solution allowed for a system where the patients themselves didn't have to do anything – unlike, say, a person with diabetes who has to constantly and proactively check their insulin levels.

After the company's initial success with asthma patients, EarlySense began adapting their monitor for adults. The device is being used at homes to help monitor the sleeping patterns of senior citizens. And, in recent years, it's even been adapted to help couples get pregnant, by letting them know when the woman is ovulating. "This is the first-ever contact-free fertility monitoring predictor," said Halperin.

More widely, their device is now used in hundreds of medical institutions worldwide – mostly in the United States through partnerships with the Veterans Administration and other large hospital networks.

In particular, two use-cases of the wireless under-the-mattress device have proven fruitful. "The No. 1 risk that patients in hospitals face today is infection," Halperin said. "When you have sepsis of a patient, the chance of survival goes down by 8% per hour. So early detection and intervention is crucial for saving lives." The second major use is for patients who are being administered opioids for pain management after surgery. "The biggest risk with getting opioid care is what's called respiratory depression where your breathing gradually slows down and eventually stops. That takes a few hours to identify," Halperin said. A patient could stop breathing, require intubation and be rushed to intensive care.

According to Halperin, there are 50,000 such cases each year of people dying from pain medication at the hospital. "With our system, the respiratory rates and patterns are continuously monitored, and clinicians are able to intervene much more quickly and thus keep patients safe in a very effective manner," he said.

It was this success with adults that led the Gates Foundation and Save the Children to reach out to EarlySense for the project in Africa – even though the Israeli company had yet to work with infants. "They found that our sensor can be a very good fit for their needs," Halperin said. "So we had a discussion with them about how we could adapt our technology that's usually used for adults and children to babies."

The new systems are being installed in the coming weeks, and they expect to see the results from the pilot program later this year. The 50-year-old Halperin, who teaches courses on technology and business at Hebrew University, hopes they see success. "The idea is that eventually every baby in Africa that we're targeting will be monitored with a solution like ours to make them much safer, and to identify high-risk conditions before their onset."

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