SAYREVILLE, New Jersey — In developing nations, health crises are a major factor in preventing growth and hurting impoverished people. Particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, hundreds of thousands of babies develop neonatal jaundice, a common health issue around the world. For example, in Nigeria, neonatal jaundice rates are 100 times higher than in the developed world, according to a study by Guesh Gebreayezgi Asefa published in 2020.
The inability to diagnose jaundice in its early stages can have devastating consequences, with dangerous health outcomes and impacts on the infants’ families. However, an innovative solution in the form of jaundice meters is changing the landscape of health care for newborns in impoverished areas. Jaundice meters provide an affordable and non-invasive means for early diagnosis, thereby ensuring timely intervention and better health outcomes for vulnerable newborns.
The Silent Threat of Neonatal Jaundice
Neonatal jaundice is actually a very common condition, with around 60% of newborns estimated to develop it. Jaundice is characterized by the yellowing of the skin and eyes, and occurs due to the accumulation of bilirubin. Bilirubin is a pigment produced predominantly by the breakdown of hemoglobin and other heme-containing proteins, much of which comes from red blood cells. In most cases, neonatal jaundice is harmless and resolves itself without a need for treatment. However, when bilirubin levels rise dangerously high, the condition becomes a significant health concern — one that is often overlooked in developing countries.
The Borgen Project spoke with Nancy Vogel, an experienced health care professional, for further information about jaundice. She explained that neonatal jaundice can be caused by liver problems, particularly if the baby is born prematurely. Neonatal jaundice begins with pre-hepatic jaundice, which is very common in newborns. However, in post-hepatic jaundice, the last stage, the accumulated bilirubin cannot be excreted, causing severe complications. This can lead to “cerebral palsy and possible hearing loss” initially, and it can get even worse over time.
Vogel also mentioned that jaundice meters, which are a means for non-invasive detection, would be “very useful in areas of poverty.” Jaundice meters can thus allow for early detection, preventing the problem from advancing to severe stages and causing complications like kernicterus, a type of brain damage that can even lead to the baby’s death.
Jaundice in Developing Countries
In developed countries, neonatal jaundice can be detected and managed more easily due to widespread access to routine blood tests. However, in resource-limited regions, the lack of access to medical facilities and the cost of conventional blood tests often result in delayed or missed diagnoses.
Health care is rarely available readily for those in poverty, meaning that neonatal jaundice poses a significant threat to newborns. Poverty and inadequate health care infrastructure are major barriers to timely diagnosis and treatment. Families struggle to access health care facilities, and even when they do, the cost of tests and treatments can be a significant obstacle.
The situation is made worse by the frequency of home births in developing nations. Such procedures lack the routine medical oversight that can help identify and address jaundice promptly. As a result, many newborns in these regions remain undiagnosed until symptoms become severe, leading to irreversible consequences.
The Role of Jaundice Meters
As a result, technology has become increasingly necessary in providing vital aid to those in need. Where access to traditional health care methods is scarce, devices like jaundice meters step in as affordable and effective alternatives.
Jaundice meters have several benefits for impoverished people:
- Non-invasiveness: Because jaundice meters avoid the need for blood samples, they are painless and stress-free.
- Affordability: Jaundice meters are relatively inexpensive, which makes them accessible to a broader population even in resource-limited areas.
- Speed: Jaundice meters provide near-instantaneous results, allowing health care providers to make immediate decisions regarding the baby’s treatment. This is especially crucial in rural areas where access to health care facilities can be limited, meaning that waiting for results would be a significant burden.
- Low skill barrier: Jaundice meters are easy to use, allowing them to be used by experienced community health workers or even trained parents, without the need for health care infrastructure or complex laboratory protocols.
While jaundice meters have the potential to revolutionize jaundice diagnosis, intervention and treatment in developing countries, several challenges remain. One of the most significant obstacles is the need for the appropriate training to ensure that health care workers can use these devices effectively.
Additionally, ongoing research and development are essential to make jaundice meters even more accessible and user-friendly. Innovations, such as apps for jaundice detection that can be used directly on cell phones, are being researched, which could further expand their reach. Such developments would also directly boost the efficiency of jaundice diagnosis and intervention, amplifying the benefits for developing countries.
The support of international organizations and nonprofits is crucial in ensuring that jaundice meters reach communities in need. Donor-funded initiatives and collaborations with local health care providers are helping to bridge the gap between technology and its effective use in such regions.
The journey to eradicating neonatal jaundice in developing countries is far from over, but with the help of health care researchers and professionals, technological advancements and international collaboration, significant progress is being made toward a healthier and brighter world for newborns, regardless of the country or socioeconomic situation they are born in.
– Namit Agrawal