Infant mortality is still a very serious problem in developing nations, with sub-Saharan Africa currently the most affected region. Due to the efforts of Nigerian and U.S. researchers, the contribution of deaths from jaundice may soon be on the decline.

In developed countries, UV light incubators are used to treat jaundiced babies by breaking down the bile pigment bilirubin. Researchers have discovered that a widely available plastic film can be constructed into canopies which allow the natural blue UV wavelengths from sunlight to filter through, while blocking the other wavelengths.

Researchers at Stanford, the University of Minnesota, and Massey Street Children’s Hospital in Nigeria collaborated on the project.

Because of the film’s ability to block out most wavelengths of light, it prevents sunburn and overheating, a serious danger when placing newborns in sunlight.

Over 160,000 babies per year suffer brain damage or die due to a lack of UV treatment, whether from lack of electricity or funds. When jaundice is left untreated, it produces a type of brain damage called kernicterus, which can cause seizures, brain swelling, and death.

In a trial of 447 jaundiced babies in Lagos, Nigeria, the canopy treatment was randomly assigned alongside competing treatments using UV incubators. Babies treated using the canopies could be held and breastfed by their mothers, which is not possible with the standard incubator treatment. As a result, a report in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the canopy treatment was 93% effective, as compared to 90% for the standard treatment.

David Stevenson of Stanford University spoke on the importance of the new treatment strategy, “As people read an article like this, they realize they don’t need Stanford University or me, they just need access to the [plastic] films. They can build their own.”

The poorest parts of the world suffer higher incidence of jaundice. Stevenson plans to initiate a public health campaign with his colleagues to spread awareness of their simple solution.

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