BreathAlert: High-Performance, Low-Cost Method to Reduce Death Due to Apnea of Prematurity

William Marsh Rice University
Organization Location: 
Houston, TX, USA

Rationale: During the first days of life, premature infants are at high risk of apnea – wherein they suddenly stop breathing. Fortunately, apnea is easily treated by simple tactile stimulation. In high resource settings, electronic monitors detect apnea; alarms alert nurses to intervene until breathing resumes. As the baby grows, apnea of prematurity is self-resolving. Unfortunately, existing monitors are too expensive for low-resource settings; instead, nurses visually monitor babies. In settings where one nurse may be caring for 20-30 babies, it is easy for apnea to be missed and premature babies continue to die needlessly. Approach: Our idea is to develop BreathAlert, a $25 battery-powered monitor that detects and automatically corrects apnea. BreathAlert is a stretchy band placed around a baby’s chest to detect if breathing has stopped; if apnea occurs, coin-sized vibrating motors in the strap are activated and the vibration automatically stimulates the baby to resume breathing. Objective, End Point, and Impact: We will develop and evaluate the effectiveness of BreathAlert. Endpoints include: (1) a clinic-ready prototype; (2) evaluation of BreathAlert’s effectiveness in detecting and treating apnea; and (3) redesign of BreathAlert incorporating user feedback and improvements for commercial production. We estimate that BreathAlert could eliminate apnea-related mortality and morbidity for 2.9 million babies per year. BreathAlert’s dual functionality to combine the detection and correction of apnea can relieve severely overworked clinical staff, making them available for other critical tasks; this will lead to rapid user adoption and holistic improvements in neonatal care.

See video