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According to UNICEF, in Sub-Saharan Africa, pneumonia kills half a million children aged five and below every year; this accounts for half of all global deaths of children under five from pneumonia. But unlike HIV/AIDS and measles, pneumonia does not get the attention it needs to be prevented, managed, and treated. This despondent fact inspired a young Ugandan boy to become a beam of hope to thousands of kids who are left at the mercy of this disease, through the invention of a biochemical smart jacket, which detects pneumonia 3 to 4 times faster than the orthodox doctors’ detection. This life jacket, that will save thousands of children yearly, is called “Mamaope” or “Mother’s hope”, in tribute to the 27,000 Ugandan kids that lose their fight to Pneumonia yearly in Uganda.

A baby adorned in the “Mamaope” jacket

After watching his friend’s grandmother suffer through the pains of pneumonia unknowingly, due to a misdiagnosis of her illness as malaria, which eventually killed her, Brian Turyabagye, a Ugandan graduate of  Engineering found out the hard truth that his friend’s grandmother was just one of thousands who die yearly from pneumonia–their deaths largely caused by misdiagnosis.

“Many of those deaths are because of misdiagnosis. In the villages and remote areas, children get sick – and the first reaction is to treat them for malaria. Most people are aware of malaria, and the signs of malaria and pneumonia are very similar, so it is difficult for health professionals to differentiate,” says Brian Turyabagye.

When the diagnosis is gotten right, which is a rare occurrence, looking at the mortality rate, the next hurdle faced is the unavailability of treatment. According to the Uganda Paediatrics Association, less that 20 percent of children with pneumonia have access to antibiotics which cost less than $1.

Turyabagye’s biochemical smart jacket, which is only a prototype and has not begun its official national medical examination, will only solve one problem–misdiagnosis. But diagnosis, we know, cannot cure any type of disease, and certainly not a serious kind like pneumonia. According to UNICEF, for every dollar spent on global health in 2011, only two cents went to pneumonia. This fact was buttressed by Mark Young, a senior health specialist in UNICEF, he said: “Although sub-Saharan Africa accounts for half of pneumonia deaths among children under five worldwide, funding for pneumonia prevention, management, and treatment in the region remains low… More resources and more commitment at the highest level will bring us closer to stopping this disease from being a major child killer.”

But there is “HOPE”. If Mamaope, becomes certified for use in health centres and hospitals, then the amount of kids who die due to misdiagnosis will be reduced and awareness about the disease, because of this jacket, will become a global gospel. Funding for its prevention, treatment in the whole of Africa, and even around the world, will skyrocket, thereby reducing mortality rate globally.

“We focused on the distinguishing signs of pneumonia. One of the processes that most doctors use is a stethoscope to the check the lungs. But [pneumonia] tends to be on side points around the body, not just in the chest or back. Its accuracy of being able to diagnose what is healthy, and what is not, is very encouraging,” Turyabagye says.

Turyabagye’s, life-saving invention, were shortlisted for this year’s £25,000 Africa prize for engineering innovation, which he hopes will jump-start mass production of the jacket for use across the continent.

“Really, we are looking to help the next generation. Pneumonia has such a high rate in Uganda and our neighbouring countries, if we were able to distribute in those countries we could save a lot of people,” he says.

People like Turyabagye, who take life changing sad events, like the loss of a friend’s grandmother, and turn them into defiant stories of Africa rising, saving lives of children and adults along the way, are true heroes of humanity.

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