August 25, 2014

Making Babies Breathing Affordable

Charles Stone, ‘ 14, GHLI Intern

Each year, an estimated three million babies die during the first four weeks of life around the world. More than 50% of these deaths are attributed to birth asphyxia, respiratory insufficiency and complications stemming from preterm birth.  Devices to help prevent some of these deaths – such as the Humidified High Flow Nasal Cannula (HHFNC), which costs $5,000, are prohibitively expensive for low resource settings.

As interns at the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute, undergraduate engineers Katy Chan '15, Jordan Sabin '16 and myself (Team PremieBreathe), made encouraging strides to address this issue. Building on a design I developed for my senior project, our goal was to fabricate a functional, low-cost prototype of the HHNFNC. 

Every day presented new challenges as we grappled with tricky physics concepts. We spent hours theorizing and testing (and re-testing) how best to control the vapor pressure of traveling air at varying temperatures.   Perhaps the most insightful part of the project involved understanding how our prototype would behave when in contact with a baby.  For this we had to be quite creative.  We rolled up heating pads to resemble the size of a premature infant and “dressed” the bundle in Jordan's finest set of baby clothes.  From this we learned that this thermal contact with the nasal cannula significantly reduced condensation in the system. We celebrated that small milestone over tasty hamburgers at Louis' Lunch (home of the original hamburger!). 

By the end of this summer, we demonstrated that our prototype closely mimicked the commercial device -- for the modest price of $340. It delivers a customizable flow of humidified and warmed air, through a standardized nasal cannula that feeds into a baby’s nostrils.

We are excited to continue project with the ultimate of goal of visiting Ethiopia to better adapt the device for use in the developing country context. To learn more about our project, visit

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