By AMBER SCHULTZ,
world editor honorary
Melbourne researchers have successfully completed the first field trials of a low-cost treatment system that would help save children's lives in some of the world's poorest communities.
The oxygen supply system – made from easily available materials and electricty-free – is an effective treatment for pneumonia, which is the the leading infectious cause of death among children under five.
A multidisciplinary team from the FREO2 Foundation, a not-for-profit health promotion charity, recently returned from setting up the field tests in Bugoye and Mbarara in the southwest of Uganda.
FREO2 chief medical officer and Melbourne University honorary Associate Professor Jim Black called the trip a “resounding success”.
“Introducing oxygen has an impressive effect on pneumonia-related infant mortality … we often see a dramatic improvement in the child’s condition within a few minutes,” he said.
Pneumonia accounts for 16 per cent of deaths in children under five worldwide, killing 880,000 children in 2016, UNICEF reported.
The foundation runs two projects: the FREO2 Siphon, an oxygen concentrator that harnesses energy from a small amount of running water to separate oxygen from the surrounding air; and the Low Pressure Oxygen Store (LPOS), an oxygen storage system that works with existing concentrators to provide oxygen to patients during power cuts.
The Melbourne University-based team set up a clinical trial of the LPOS in the Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital, and they are awaiting approval from the national ethics committee to switch the machine on.
They also demonstrated the Siphon to interested parties in Bugoye.
The field tests were somewhat of a trip home for FREO2 CEO and Melbourne University honorary Associate Professor Roger Rassool, who was born just 50km from Bogoye.
“We wanted to share our knowledge with people in need,” Dr Rassool said.
However, Dr Rassool said getting the projects ready for use in regional hospitals in Uganda would take time.
“We’ve hit bureaucratic barriers,” he said, adding that partnerships and connections were important to get the field tests approved by local governments.
“The key to any bureaucracy is partnership,” he said.
Luckily, academic connections helped broker a partnership between the Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital and the foundation.
“The hospital director happens to be an alumnus of Melbourne University,” Dr Rassool said.
The FREO2 Foundation, which stands for Fully Renewable Energy Oxygen, was first created in 2011, funded in 2013, and registered in 2016 with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.
The team was awarded Australia's ANSTO Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology last year for the FREO2 Siphon.
UNICEF Australia International programs manager Felicity Wever said field testing was an important part of developing innovative technology.
“Given that we are dealing with people’s lives – the lives of children in our case - it is absolutely imperative that new innovations are tested in the field,” she said in a statement.
Ms Wever commended innovations that provide humanitarian services.
“It is vital for aid organisations like UNICEF to have access to innovations and to continue to innovate,” she said.