Researchers at the University College London (UCL) and the University of Ghana have developed a smartphone app, neoSCB that can identify jaundice in newborn babies by scanning their eyes. The app detected the disease in 300 newborn babies in Ghana, followed by an initial study on 37 newborn babies at University College London Hospital (UCLH) in 2020. It analyzes the images on the smartphone taken using the app. It checks the quantity of yellowness in the sclera (white portion of the eye) as a sign of neonatal jaundice. The app can accurately detect the disease requiring treatment.
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Jaundice- A global health concern
Jaundice is a condition in which the whites of the eyes and skin turns yellow. It is common in newborns and is harmless. The yellowness is caused due to substance called bilirubin which can reach the brain in severe cases causing disabilities such as hearing impairment, and neurological conditions, including developmental delays and cerebral palsy or death.
Each year severe jaundice causes approximately 114,000 newborn deaths and 178,000 disability cases worldwide. The majority of neonatal jaundice cases occur in the first week after birth. However, early diagnosis can decrease the risk of complications. Though, the facilities are available in developed countries only. Newborns in developing and under-developed countries are at a higher risk of getting the disease due to a lack of screening resources. Therefore, an app like neoSCB can be helpful in areas devoid of such facilities.
Conventional screening methods vs neoSCB
The app was compared with conventional screening methods to determine its effectiveness. Researchers considered 336 newborns for the study, 79 had severe jaundice, and the app correctly detected 74 of them. On the contrary, the conventional screening device, the transcutaneous bilirubinometer, correctly identified 76 babies having the disease. A transcutaneous bilirubinometer is a non-invasive tool to measure the serum bilirubin (yellowish pigment made during red blood cell breakdown) level. It is kept under the newborn’s skin to calculate jaundice levels. The screening outcomes were followed up by blood tests to determine the type of treatment required.
“The study shows that the neoSCB app is as good as commercial devices currently recommended to screen for severely jaundiced newborns, but the app only requires a smartphone which costs less than a tenth of the commercial device. We hope that once rolled out widely, our technology can be used to save the lives of newborns in parts of the world that lack access to expensive screening devices,” said Dr Terence Leung, Medical Physics & Biomedical Engineer at UCL.
“The neoSCB method was acceptable to mothers in urban and rural communities where the study was conducted. Mothers easily devised ways to keep the baby’s eye open, most often by initiating breastfeeding,” said Dr Christabel Enweronu-Laryea from the University of Ghana Medical School and study lead.
“This app has the potential to prevent death and disability worldwide in many different settings. It will reduce unnecessary hospital visits and potentially empower community health workers and parents to care for newborn babies safely,” said Dr Judith Meek from UCL and senior study author.
The detailed research has been published in the journal Paediatrics.
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