Over half of all infants in the world develop jaundice after birth. Annually over 100,000 infants die as a result of the condition, and increasing numbers of afflicted children are growing up with brain damage
Modern smartphones do everything from monitor our sleep cycles to turn on our coffee makers. Now it turns out that they are also good enough to diagnose jaundice.
That’s good news for parents in Norway and other Western countries who often have to go home from the delivery room before the disease is detectable.
It is also good news for parents and doctors in the world’s poorest countries where there is no money for expensive diagnostic equipment.
Brain damage caused by jaundice on the rise
“It is thought that the increased incidence of brain damage caused by jaundice in recent years in the United States may be due to mothers and newborns being sent home from the hospital very quickly after birth,” says Lise Lyngsnes Randeberg, Professor of Biomedical Optics and Photonics at NTNU.
Fortunately, treatment is brilliantly simple. Sun or artificial light in proper doses is all it takes, as long as the disease is detected early. This may be easier said than done, however. It may take time before the skin, eyes and mucous membranes become yellow enough for parents to discover what is afoot. If the baby is dark-skinned, detection is even more challenging.
In most cases, jaundice goes away by itself. But when the baby needs help, early treatment is crucial so that the disease does not cause brain damage, such as deafness, cerebral palsy, mental retardation or even death.
Checking the colour nuances of baby’s skin
Randeberg and a small team are working to develop an app for smartphones that parents anywhere in the world can use to discover whether their child has jaundice.
Parents take a picture of the child with the smartphone’s camera. The app then applies advanced mathematical models to calculate whether the tint of a child’s skin warrants concern. A green signal appears if the child is healthy, a yellow signal if the child ‘s skin tint is a cause for concern, and a red signal if the child has jaundice. The app prototype has already been tested on newborns at St. Olav’s Hospital in Trondheim. Now the patent is being secured before further testing takes place in Norway and some African countries.
Jaundice is one of leading causes of infant mortality
“The new app is not intended to be classified as a medical device, but it will help parents determine whether they should bring their child to the doctor or not. It is easier to detect jaundice in babies with lighter complexions, but the new app will also work well for darker complexions,” says Randeberg.
In 2010 jaundice led to 114,100 deaths. In addition, many children who survive jaundice are growing up with brain injuries resulting from the disease. Seventy-five per cent of these cases occur in the poorest parts of the world.
“Jaundice is one of the three most frequent causes of neonatal death in sub-Saharan Africa,” says Randeberg. “Many deaths could be avoided if doctors and parents had access to a simple way to detect symptoms early. The equipment available today to diagnose jaundice costs about NOK 80,000, and doesn’t even exist in the poorest countries. But if an app can provide a doctor with an indication of disease, a simple blood test may be enough to make a definitive diagnosis.”
- The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Health and Care Services and Ministry of Education and Research have asked for input from Norway's major educational institutions on how to improve the nation’s global heath and education initiatives through the Vision 2030 initiative.
- NTNU is among the institutions that have submitted a response.
- Ideas and input for the Vision 2030 initiative were presented at a conference in Trondheim on March 2-3, 2015.
Frustrated by the lack of medical equipment
Paediatrician Anders Aune at St. Olavs Hospital in Trondheim took the initiative for this project after he visited hospitals in African countries and saw their lack of medical equipment.
Aune observed that equipment to measure neonatal jaundice simply wasn’t to be found in these countries. He also noticed that a great many people had mobile phones. Aune contacted Randeberg to find out whether a smartphone could be used to make the diagnosis. Randeberg put the case to physics student Gunnar Vartdal, and the topic became his master’s thesis. Now, three years later, Randeberg can tell Aune that yes, there is an app.
The new app is part of Visjon 2030 (Vision 2030) – the national innovation effort for better global health. The conference to present these ideas was held in Trondheim on March 2-3, 2015.