More than 2.7 million newborns die each year, and low birth weight and preterm infants in developing countries contribute substantially to this figure. New Zealander Ray Avery, most recently in the news for reportedly threatening a researcher’s career prospects over findings that a medical product he’d developed didn’t work as well as expected, is seeking to make a difference by supplying his “Lifepod” incubators to poor and isolated communities around the world. Resembling small spaceships, they come with a big claim: each one can save the lives of up to 500 babies. Donate $20 and have your name inscribed on the Lifepod wall of heroes. Donate $20,000 and have your name inscribed on a Lifepod. Donate $50,000 and enjoy dinner with the man himself. But are incubators the best way to care for preterm infants?
Incubators, with their enclosed, temperature-controlled environment, are considered an essential part of the modern neonatal intensive care unit. Small, preterm infants lack the necessary brown fat that enables them to regulate their temperature. If they become hypothermic, they use more energy, which can result in low oxygen levels, low blood sugar levels, and even death. Yet the World Health Organisation highlights problems with incubators in developing countries. They are often not used properly due to lack of staff training. They are unable to be properly cleaned, posing a significant infection risk. They break down. But most significantly, they are frequently and often needlessly used to separate infants from their mothers.
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