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How innovative tech is helping MSF save lives around the world

Whether it’s to help Ebola sufferers in West Africa with a specialised Android tablet, or to treat tuberculosis in Papua New Guinea with small drones, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is pioneering the latest innovative technology to reach and treat our patients in the most testing of conditions. Here are five of the most innovative MSF designs that are saving lives in the field.

INFLATABLE HOSPITALS

A fully-functional hospital from a bag? MSF has developed just that. Enabling doctors to begin surgery as soon as possible following a natural disaster, these ‘plug-and-play’ hospitals were designed in 2005 and first used following the earthquake in Pakistan the same year.

Since then they have provided immediate, essential relief to communities in Sri Lanka, Haiti, the Philippines and most recently in Nepal after the April 2015 earthquake, where MSF set up a 20-bed inflatable hospital in Arughat. The hospital contained an operating theatre, emergency room, maternity and resuscitation room.

The inflatable design is flexible and functional: pre-packaged, easily transported and able to be set up in 24 to 48 hours in the most challenging of terrain. Plus, they come equipped with their own water and power systems, and the rubber surfaces are made for easy cleaning to maintain hygiene and control infection.

PEEK: THE SMARTPHONE THAT SAVES LIVES

PEEK takes heavy, expensive and hard-to-use eye equipment and replaces it with a simple smartphone: a game-changer for the diagnosis of life-threatening eye diseases like cerebral malaria.

The Portable Eye Examination Kit was developed by scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Strathclyde, and is now being tested by MSF teams in Mali to help identify cerebral malaria in children. It’s all contained in a sleeve that fits onto the smartphone, which channels the phone’s inbuilt light to focus on the patient’s retina, recording and storing its image on the phone. Doctors can examine the image, replay the image to have a closer look, or email it to others for a second opinion.

The best things about PEEK are that it’s simple, cheap and accessible. And with a few day’s training, it can be used just as effectively by a non-specialist doctor as by an ophthalmologist.

‘EBOLA-PROOF’ TABLETS

At the height of the devastating Ebola epidemic in West Africa, an impressive tech development radically changed the way doctors operated in the high-risk zone. The Clinical Management Tablet, a specialised Android tablet, can withstand being dipped in chlorine to be removed without risk of contamination.

Developed by technology volunteers and Google in collaboration with MSF, the polycarbonate-encased tablet replaced an inefficient paper-based system where doctors were often forced to shout patient notes over a fence. It runs on a battery-powered server charged via a portable generator, and can send medical information wirelessly to the outside of the Ebola facility, as well as be safely removed. Plus, it was made to endure humidity and storms and is incredibly easy for glove-wearing, time-pressed medics to use.

Looking to an exciting future for medical technology, the tablet is being developed as an “open source” design, with the hope it may be modified and used worldwide in combating other humanitarian emergencies in high-risk environments.

DRONES

Working to combat one of the highest global rates of tuberculosis (TB), MSF has been operating a TB programme in Papua New Guinea (PNG) since mid-2014. However, making treatment accessible in PNG presents a unique challenge: remote communities and health centres are incredibly difficult to reach. Dirt roads are often bogged with mud and boat travel is hindered by crocodiles and deadly snakes.

To overcome these obstacles MSF partnered with US company Matternet and successfully trialled their small quadcopter Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the transport of sputum samples of patients with suspected TB. The drones bypass roads to carry samples from remote health centres to Kerema general hospital for testing. There, the recently-developed GeneXpert machine can diagnose the disease within two hours.

Operated using a smartphone, they can travel at a speed of 60km/hour with a range of 28 kilometres (*status in 2014). This simple technology enables a life-saving connection between remote health centres to otherwise inaccessible hospitals, radically improving MSF’s diagnostic capacity to deliver fast and wide-reaching treatment.

MISSING MAPS PROJECT

Maps are essential for MSF to identify crisis-hit locations, access patients, and track the spread of disease, but many places where natural disasters, conflict or epidemics are likely to occur remain a map dead-zone.

Founded by MSF together with the British Red Cross, the American Red Cross and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), Missing Maps is a collaborative project, channelling global input to put communities most vulnerable to humanitarian crises literally ‘on the map’. 

Starting in 2010, the project is now run through the program Open Street Map, which guarantees free, open access to both NGOs and locals. The maps are live, meaning that anyone can add to, correct or develop them. It’s an outstanding example of digital volunteerism and humanitarian aid working together.

To get involved, go to http://www.missingmaps.org/.