The latest wearable technology in the global market isn’t another variation of the Fitbit. Instead, a startup in Bangalore, India, has developed a baby bracelet with the aim of saving lives by tackling hypothermia, a serious health problem across the country.
Currently, 1 in 3 Indian babies is born dangerously underweight. That means every year, an estimated 8 million babies are born weighing less than 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds). Research indicates that up to 92 percent of all newborns across the country are at risk of hypothermia, an illness where the body temperature plummets below 36.5 degrees Celsius; it’s particularly common among underweight babies. Babies with hypothermia face increased risk of infections, hypoglycemia, pneumonia, and even death.
To reduce mortality from hypothermia, Bempu, a Bangalore-based startup, has developed a baby bracelet to constantly monitor a newborn’s temperature. The idea is as simple as a 24/7 thermometer, but its effects are life-saving in a country where “the highest number of infant deaths are due to premature birth,” says Gini Morgan, director of public health for Bempu. “Hypothermia, in its nascent stage, can be easily preventable. It can be as simple as the parent wrapping the baby in an extra blanket or providing some skin-to-skin contact,” says Sanjay Gururaj, a pediatrician consultant and neonatologist at Shanthi Hopsital in Bangalore. But if left unchecked, in its most severe form, hypothermia can lead to a reduction in heart rate, and possibly cardiac arrest.
The bracelet is a hypoallergenic and non-toxic silicone band that tracks temperature by touching the underside of a baby’s wrist. If the temperature fluctuates either too high or too low, the bracelet emits an alarm that turns off once the baby’s temperature is regulated. The main difference from a thermometer, says Morgan, is a built-in “call to action for parents.” Bempu advises doctors to prescribe the bracelet to parents of underweight babies or when a newborn is in the intensive care unit.
The startup is now working with both private and government hospitals across India. Launched in 2014 with help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bempu has focused efforts in low-resource communities by conducting trials in partnership with government hospitals and distributing the bracelet free of cost in public hospitals (it retails for $26.49 USD, or 1,800 rupees, in private hospitals). Most recently, the startup launched a pilot program at a public hospital in the state of Rajasthan in 2016.
India’s high rate of hypothermia among newborns is reflective of the broader socioeconomic divide between rural and urban medical infrastructure, and highlights the lack of public health support in the country. When developing the bracelet, Bempu’s founder, Ratul Narain, conducted over 100 interviews with pediatricians and neonatologists across the country and found hypothermia to be quoted as the top health concern by parents and doctors. He also found that incidences of hypothermia are disproportionately higher in rural settings, often going unchecked at public hospitals. In government hospitals, the patients are discharged quickly in order to make room for more; babies who are born underweight stay longer in private hospitals with the support of regular monitoring and are released only when they’ve grown to two kilograms (4.4 pounds), says Jagdish Somanna, a pediatrician at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health, a public hospital in Bangalore.
Somanna has been using Bempu’s bracelet for almost a year now. He suggests that the bracelet should be mandatory for all low-birthweight babies being discharged from a hospital. He has found that parents who use the technology “feel like they’re carrying a health personnel back home,” he says, and has noticed fewer babies returning to the hospital with recurring illnesses.
Still, “the bracelet alone is not enough,” says Morgan. “The crucial thing is educating the parents and providing the supportive infrastructure at hospitals and at home.” Gururaj agrees that, among new parents, there is a lack of awareness regarding hypothermia and how to treat it. “The bracelet is a great instrument to detect it, but we need to stop hypothermia in the first place,” he says.