A tiny sleeping bag called the Embrace Warmer is tackling a leading cause of infant mortality—hypothermia—and for less than 1 percent the cost of a typical incubator
Brenda Nalubega is a tall, round-faced Ugandan woman with braids piled high in a bun. In early July, her deep-set eyes and shy smile gave no hint that just four days earlier, she had given birth prematurely to triplets.
One daughter weighed 1,6 kg. Another came in at 1,5 kg. The third child, a boy, was a scant 1,3 kg.
Nalubega’s babies were at risk of hypothermia—low body temperature—which is one of the leading causes of infant mortality. Every year, more than one million babies die on their first day of life, while three million die within the first month. Many of these are premature and low-birth-weight newborns who lack the body fat that enables their body to retain heat and regulate body temperature. For them, room temperature is freezing.
In the developed world, a baby susceptible to hypothermia would be put in an incubator. But they typically cost US $20.000—unthinkably expensive in the undeveloped world. At Mulago Hospital, where Nalubega had her triplets, only two of the hospital’s 26 incubators were functioning, and so more than three babies were often placed in the same incubator simultaneously.
Thankfully, the hospital now offers a new option: the Embrace Warmer, a tiny sleeping bag with a pouch in the back that holds a plastic pack filled with a wax-like material with the melting point of human body temperature. Once melted, it maintains a single temperature for up to six hours. Best of all? It costs US $25, or 0,1 percent the cost of a traditional incubator.
Jane Chen, who served as chief executive officer for Embrace during its first five years, was one of the students in the 2007-2008 Stanford design school class who designed the warmer. The group took a trip to Kathmandu, Nepal to investigate the problem. She said, "In the big hospitals there were plenty of incubators, but that’s not where the babies were. So that was a big aha moment for us." They focused on making an incubator that would work in the rural areas where a lot of the infant deaths were occurring.
By now, over 60.000 babies have used the Embrace Warmer in 86 programs across 11 countries, including Afghanistan, China, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Mexico, Mozambique, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda, and Zambia. President Obama invited Chen to the first White House Maker Faire and lauded the Embrace in a speech, Beyonce has donated US $125.000, Chen has given two TED Talks, and the organization itself has become two entities.
The for-profit arm, Embrace Innovations, manufactures the device, develops new products, runs clinical trials, and sells the warmer to governments and private clinics in the developing world. (Chen is now chief business officer of Embrace Innovations.) The non-profit arm, Embrace, donates the warmers to health facilities and develops programs that teach mothers and health workers how to use it.
"It's not enough to simply ship these infant warmers out in a box," said Alejandra Villalobos, interim executive director for the non-profit. "We find they can go missing, they go unused, they’ll be used for a few months and then people forget about them."
The non-profit also teaches kangaroo mother care—a protocol in which mothers hold infants to their bare chest to keep them warm—plus hygiene, nutrition, and care for low-birth-weight and premature infants.
The first version of the Embrace Warmer requires intermittent access to electricity (to melt the wax) and is used in hospital settings and health facilities. Later this year, Embrace will release a new version for home use that can be heated with boiling water and remains warm for up to eight hours.
Although there are so many causes of infant death that it's impossible to point out the impact of the warmer itself, clinical trials show it performs just as well as existing standards of care. Additionally, the warmer fosters more mother-child interaction, which is important for bonding. And research shows that when infants survive, their mothers tend to have fewer children.
Chen is proud of Embrace’s success, but said the most rewarding moments involve the babies themselves. For instance, two years ago, a 0,9 kg baby was found in the street in Beijing and brought to an orphanage that had just begun working with Embrace two days prior. He was kept in the Embrace for 30 days and became the first baby of that size to survive in the orphanage. "A few months later, we got an email from a family in Chicago saying they had adopted this little boy, and thanking us for the role we played in saving this baby’s life," said Chen. "I think that was the best day of my life."
Nalubega, the new mother of triplets, said, "I was very happy to put my babies in the Embrace Warmer. When I touched them, they were really warm." (Laura Shin, Sparknews, France)