'I thought, is there something I could do to make the pain less for the babies and the mothers?'
Virtue Oboro went through every mother's worst nightmare in 2015 when her 2-day-old son had to be rushed into hospital for emergency treatment. Doctors diagnosed the infant with jaundice, a common condition affecting more than 60% of newborns worldwide. While many cases are mild and resolve on their own, some severe cases require phototherapy, where babies are placed under blue light. Although this is a simple and effective treatment method, access to the necessary equipment is limited in some places, including Oboro's home country of Nigeria. Not receiving treatment on time can lead to irreversible health problems including hearing loss, vision impairment, brain damage, cerebral palsy and even death.
Oboro's son, Tombra's case was severe. However, there were no phototherapy units available at the hospital and the family helplessly waited four hours while their baby's condition deteriorated. Eventually, Tombra was given an emergency blood transfusion, a risky procedure that bought valuable time until a phototherapy unit became available. Even when the unit finally became available, Oboro says she had to buy the bulb herself and intermittent power outages caused the unit to be off for several hours during Tombra's seven-day treatment.
Although Tombra—who is now 6—made a full recovery, the experience was so traumatizing that it inspired Oboro to change careers and make sure no other Nigerian parent would have to go through what she did. "I felt like some of the things (I experienced) could have been avoided, or the stress level could be reduced," she told CNN. "I thought, is there something I could do to make the pain less for the babies and the mothers?" Driven by her desire for better treatment options, Oboro created the Crib A'Glow, a portable, affordable, solar-powered phototherapy unit that treats jaundice using blue LED lights.
According to Hippolite Amadi—a professor of bioengineering at Imperial College, London, who specializes in neonatal medicine and has worked with neonatal centers in Nigeria for more than 20 years—Oboro's experience with power outages and broken equipment isn't uncommon in Nigeria. Parents often have to travel long distances to get to a hospital, not all of which have phototherapy units and neonatal specialists. "One can find large numbers of obsolete or dysfunctional systems being applied at some of these centers," he said, adding that by his estimates, "less than 5% of all Nigerian facilities has sufficient functional phototherapy devices" to serve patients in need.
Oboro founded her company Tiny Hearts shortly after Tombra's recovery in 2016 and began developing the phototherapy cribs. While she, a visual designer, struggled with the medical technicalities involved in designing the cribs, her husband had experience working with solar energy and was able to help. She also sought the expertise and input of a pediatrician to make sure the device was safe and in line with current phototherapy guidelines. While one of the most effective phototherapy units currently used in Nigeria costs around $2,000—a substantial sum for hospitals on a budget—because Crib A'Glow is produced in Nigeria using local materials it provides savings on added fees such as import tax and retails for just $360 per unit. Furthermore, because it's portable and solar-powered, the device can be also used at home by parents living in remote areas with limited or inconsistent access to electricity.
"Seeing devices coming out that will solve that problem is very exciting," said Amadi, adding that he would be interested in testing the technology in the practices he oversees. He believes innovations like Crib A'Glow could be used in tandem with conventional phototherapy machines, allowing babies to begin jaundice treatment in a hospital and to finish at home. "Such technology needs to be supported and production scaled up to tackle neonatal conditions in Nigeria." Since its inception, Crib A'Glow has received award grants including $50,000 from Johnson and Johnson's Africa Innovation Award and was recently selected as a finalist for the Royal Academy of Engineering's Africa Prize 2022.
Oboro revealed that she has faced resistance from hospitals and medical professionals in Nigeria. "It was not an easy thing to get them to test the unit, because the perception was if it was made in Nigeria, it probably would not work well," she said. Despite these challenges, the cribs are already being used by more than 500 hospitals across Nigeria and Ghana, treating more than 300,000 babies. The company intends to expand into other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Oboro said she feels "lucky and grateful" that Tombra survived and that it's now her mission to fight neonatal jaundice, and "save a hundred and one more babies."