Ugandan engineers invent 'smart jacket' to diagnose pneumonia

KAMPALA (Uganda) • A team of Ugandan engineers has invented a "smart jacket" that can diagnose pneumonia faster than a doctor, offering hope against a disease that kills more children worldwide than any other.

Dubbed Mama-Ope or Mother's Hope, the kit consists of a biomedical smart jacket and a mobile phone application that does the diagnosis. The jacket, which is still only a prototype, can diagnose pneumonia up to three times faster than a doctor and reduces human error, according to studies by its inventors.

Each year, pneumonia - a severe lung infection - kills up to 24,000 Ugandan children under the age of five, many of whom are misdiagnosed as having malaria, according to United Nations children's agency Unicef.

A lack of access to laboratory testing and infrastructure in poor communities means health workers often have to rely on simple clinical examinations to make a diagnosis.

With the easy-to-use Mama-Ope kit, health workers merely slip the jacket onto the child, and wait while its sensors pick up sound patterns from the lungs, as well as the child's body temperature and breathing rate.

A child being fitted with a Mama-Ope jacket at Uganda's Makerere University School of Public Health.
A child being fitted with a Mama-Ope jacket at Uganda's Makerere University School of Public Health. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Traditionally, doctors use a stethoscope to listen for abnormal crackling or bubbling sounds in the lungs. If they suspect malaria or tuberculosis - whose symptoms also include respiratory distress - the time lost treating those rather than pneumonia could be deadly for the patient.

The team is working on patenting the kit, which has been shortlisted for the British Royal Academy of Engineering's 2017 Africa Prize. Plans are under way to have the kit piloted at Uganda's referral hospitals and then trickle down to remote health centres.

According to Unicef, most of the 900,000 annual deaths of children under five due to pneumonia occur in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. This beats other causes of childhood death such as diarrhoea, malaria, meningitis or HIV/Aids.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2017, with the headline 'Ugandan engineers invent 'smart jacket' to diagnose pneumonia'. Subscribe