Engineers at Newcastle University have developed an ultrasound pregnancy scanner which can be mass-produced from prices of just £40, creating an exciting means of improving pre-natal care in developing countries.
After attending a pregnancy check-up scan with his wife, electronic engineer Jeff Neasham realised that he could use his expertise in sonar research to develop a much cheaper alternative to the traditional ultrasound machines which cost anywhere between £20,000 and £100,000 to produce. Traditional equipment requires highly specialised computer processing units to function: Neasham’s scanner, which is the size of a computer mouse, can be plugged into any PC or laptop built in the past ten years, via the USB port. Costing an average of £30-£40 to mass-produce, with a market rate of £200, the portable scanner will be much more accessible to hospitals in developing countries which have little or no access to medical imaging devices.
Neasham’s hand-held scanner works in much the same way to traditional ultrasound scanners used in pre-natal care, in which pulses of high-frequency sound are emitted to produce an image of the foetus. Neasham drew upon his own expert knowledge, gained from his experience of using sonar technology to detect shipwrecks, to simplify the hardware and create an imaging device which can be run at a much lower power output rate, and therefore at a much lower cost.
The simplifications, which include reducing the number of transducers (equipment which enables the conversion of the sound waves to an image), mean that the device has its limitations, notably that it is only being able to produce one image every few seconds, unlike traditional scanners which can produce images in real-time. The image quality is also markedly lower than that of conventional equipment: whilst Neasham’s scanner can show the position of the foetus in the womb, it cannot provide enough detail to show the baby’s sex.
But surely this is a small price to pay for the possibility of revolutionising pre-natal care across the developing world. According to the United Nations, more than 350,000 women die every year from pregnancy complications, almost all of them – 99 per cent – in developing countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, a woman’s maternal mortality risk is 1 in 30, compared to 1 in 5,600 in developed regions. Access to medical imaging devices is rare in these countries, meaning that invasive and potentially harmful obstetric medicine is used. A device such as Neasham’s, however crude, could begin to change these staggering statistics. Imaging scanners like these can be used not only in pre-natal care, but also in other aspects of medicine, for example, looking at internal organs as well as in emergencies to locate internal bleeding or foreign objects using a non-invasive method.
Of course, whilst the scanner’s portability means that it will extend medical imaging beyond the exclusive realm of rich Western states, it is still not a given that everyone in developing countries, particularly in some African states, will have a PC or a laptop. And whilst there are still improvements to be made, notably concerning the quality and clarity of the image, what remains clear is that Neasham’s scanner, once it has been developed for commercial sales, will have a global impact upon prenatal care.
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