The ventilator could be a game-changer in Afghanistan's fight against the pandemic as it has been struggling to deal with the virus outbreak, both in terms of testing and treatment.
A group of teenage girls from Afghanistan has brought renewed hope to the country's fight against COVID-19. The all-female Afghan Robotics Team—which made headlines in 2017 after winning a special award at an international competition in the US—has built a lightweight, low-cost ventilator for Coronavirus patients out of car parts. According to Reuters, it took the girls about four months to finalize the ventilator, which is partly based on a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) design and costs a fraction of the price of a traditional ventilator.
The team—known as "Afghan Dreamers"—comprises of girls aged 15 to 17 and was formed three years ago by Roya Mahboob, an Afghan tech entrepreneur who heads the Digital Citizen Fund which runs classes for girls in STEM and robotics, reports NPR. "I'm really proud of these young girls – [who are] feeling that they have to help their community," said Mahboob. "It's amazing and hopeful for the future of Afghanistan." The ventilator could be a game-changer in Afghanistan's fight against the pandemic as it has been struggling to deal with the virus outbreak, both in terms of testing and treatment.
The all-girls Afghan Robotics Team created low-cost, long lasting ventilator to help tackle the coronavirus. https://t.co/iYQlqx0mqf— Thomson Reuters Foundation News (@TRF_Stories) July 20, 2020
"You are talking about a country that is now struck by COVID-19, which comes on top of ongoing war and abject poverty," said Toby Lanzer, the humanitarian coordinator for U.N. agencies working in Afghanistan. He revealed that the country only has the capacity to test 1000 people a day and that there are only about 200 working ventilators for the nation's 35 million people. It was to deal with the shortfall that the then-governor of Herat, Abdul Qayoum Rahimi, on March 26 brought together two doctors, university graduates, local industrialists, and the Afghan Dreamers.
Afghan all-girls robotics team designs low-cost ventilator to treat coronavirus patients https://t.co/LoV3I8zoOv— Reuters Afghanistan & Pakistan (@ReutersPakistan) July 20, 2020
The doctors presented the students with a challenge: Find a way to mechanized their hand-operated ventilators aka bag-valve-masks. This type of ventilator requires a health worker to manually squeeze a large inflatable bag attached to a mask that slips over the nose and mouth to get air into the lungs. Officials feared that there wouldn't be enough healthcare workers to hand-operate the equipment if the number of COVID-19 cases shot up. The Afghan Dreamers were thus tasked with building a prototype of a mechanized ventilator that could be replicated and mass-produced, said Mahboob.
Officials also worried that impoverished Afghanistan could not afford to buy fully automated ventilators typically used in ICU rooms, which cost around $50,000 each. By comparison, a mechanized hand-operated ventilator could cost just around $500, said Douglas Chin, a Harvard-educated surgeon who has been helping the Afghan Dreamers with their prototype. Their device is easy to carry, can run on battery power for 10 hours, and was built using a motor from a used Toyota Corolla and a chain drive from a Honda motorcycle. "I feel so proud to be part of a team that is trying to do something meaningful to support our doctors and nurses - they are our heroes at this time," team captain Somaya Faruqi told BBC.
The teenagers hope their work will inspire others and bring about change in the country which has a female literacy rate of less than 30%. "It [being able to make ventilators] shows the importance of teaching girls at a young age and the role of women as active citizens in our society," said another team member, Elham Mansori. Although the ventilator still has to undergo final testing from health authorities before it can be used, the Afghan health ministry has been supportive of the girls. Health Ministry spokesman Akmal Samsor stated that once approved, the ventilators would be rolled out in Afghan hospitals and the design shared with the World Health Organization.
"We appreciate the initiative and creativity in Afghanistan’s health sector... after they are approved, we will use these ventilators and we are determined to contract with companies so we can also export them," he said.