Low-cost thermal blanket could save the lives of preterm babies

Scientists at icddr,b and their US colleagues have developed an innovative ‘thermal blanket’, prepared from local materials, which could potentially save the lives of premature babies in Bangladesh and beyond. In December 2015, icddr,b hosted a workshop to discuss progress to date and what was needed to realise the potential of this innovative new product.

Globally, 15 million babies are born preterm (before 37 weeks of gestational age) each year and this number is increasing. Preterm newborns account for around 50% of global neonatal deaths.

A key challenge after preterm birth is to protect the newborn from hypothermia. Low-cost thermal protection of preterm newborns is therefore a global priority, including in Bangladesh.

Thermal blanket and chemical warming pads are being demonstrated to health workers and mothers. Photo: © icddr,b/ Shahzad Noorani

The blanket, dubbed the ‘portable incubator’, was originally developed by scientists at Johns Hopkins University and George Mason University, USA, with support from icddr,b scientists, through a Grand Challenge Exploration Grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It includes chemical warming pads that, when activated, provide essential heat to a newborn.

The stakeholder workshop was a platform for paediatricians, obstetricians, programme managers, public health researchers and international academics to discuss the design, use and production of the blanket. Based on their expertise and experience, they gave advice and feedback on the design of the blanket and how to optimise the temperature of its chemical warming pads.

Dr Saifuddin Ahmed, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and principal investigator of the project, believes the team may have found a solution to the challenge of infant hypothermia. During the workshop he said, “This thermal blanket, and the associated chemical warming pads, could be one of the solutions to address hypothermia among preterm newborns in Bangladesh and other similar countries where incubators are not universally available. We are excited about the research and hope to work collaboratively with icddr,b in the coming days to finalise the product.”  

With funding from Swedish development aid (Sida), icddr,b explored the thermal blanket’s feasibility and acceptability among healthcare providers at the facility level and with mothers at the community level. The study was conducted among 40 mothers who had recently given birth preterm at icddr,b’s Matlab Hospital and Shahjadpur Upazila (sub-district) Health Complex.

The 9-month study, which will finish in March 2016, also looked at the challenges associated with manufacturing the low-cost thermal blankets in developing countries such as Bangladesh. These findings were also discussed at the workshop.

Photo: © icddr,b/ Rabiul Hassan

“Thanks to funding from the Sida, it was found that this blanket along with the chemical warming pad could be easily made with low-cost at any local setting in developing countries and it is easy to use for the mothers and the healthcare providers for management of preterm birth,”said principal investigator of the study and icddr,b assistant scientist Anisuddin Ahmed.

Co-principal investigator and icddr,b associate scientist Dr M A Quaiyum added, “This thermal blanket has the potential to play a role in reduction of neonatal mortality in resource-poor countries like Bangladesh. In order to make that a reality, we have to prove that it is effective and accepted by community people and healthcare providers in Bangladesh.”

Dr Shams El Arifeen, senior director of the maternal and child health division of icddr,b, shared his views during the workshop. He said, “The thermal blanket is an excellent innovation which could help save many lives. When preterm newborns are referred to a district-level facility for better treatment from a sub-district one, it may be used during the travel.” 

Dr Abul Hussam, professor at George Mason University and winner of the 2007 Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability Gold Award, helped to finalise the prototype thermal blanket and is hopeful about its future. He said, “The team has worked diligently and passionately to help save preterm newborns’ lives and the work will not only be useful in Bangladesh but also beyond its borders. The chemical warming pad combined with advanced garment manufacturing technology of Bangladesh made this innovation possible.”

Going forward, the scientists at icddr,b, Johns Hopkins University and George Mason University will work together to incorporate suggestions and feedback from the workshop and carry out an effectiveness trial of the thermal blanket, to determine whether it reduces preterm newborn mortality.