Pneumonia or malaria? A jacket that can tell the difference – and save lives

Photo: The Royal Academy of Engineering.
Photo: The Royal Academy of Engineering.


Pneumonia, most commonly a complication of a respiratory infection, kills a child every 35 seconds worldwide. In Uganda, it is estimated to be the largest cause of death in children under the age of five. However, because clinical symptoms of the disease are almost indistinguishable from malaria, it is often not correctly diagnosed — an error that can be fatal. But the invention of a biomedical jacket by a group of students may be able to change that.

The idea for the jacket was first conceived as part of a student design project at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. The MamaOpe jacket is a wearable device that measures a sick child’s breathing rate and temperature and is able to diagnose if the child has pneumonia.

The team, then comprising Olivia Koburongo, Brian Turyabagye, Besufekad Shifferaw, Viola Akangumya, and Angella Namwase, won runner-up prize in the Big Ideas innovation competition run by the University of California Berkeley in 2015.  The 6,500 US dollars in prize money meant that the team could work to make their prototype a real product.


A prototype of the "MamaOpe" coat. Photo: MamaOpe.



“Pneumonia is our country’s big tragedy”

One the students who created the jacket, Brian Turyabagye, explains the invention.




MamaOpe means mother’s hope. When a child is born, a mother hopes that they will live to a certain age but because of the many diseases in our country it’s not always possible.


I know lots of people who have been impacted by pneumonia. It’s a big tragedy that our country has. Doctors easily mistake it for malaria; misdiagnosis is very common. People self-diagnose as well and they get it wrong because everyone knows about malaria but not about pneumonia in the same way.


Malaria and severe pneumonia suffer from “symptom overlap”, sharing symptoms such as fever, shaking chills and respiratory problems. Raising awareness campaigns for malaria in rural African zones have done their work, but to the extent that upon seeing a fever caregivers may immediately assume it to be malaria rather than pneumonia.





The MamaOpe team.


The initial idea came from thinking about the different symptoms of pneumonia. One of the major things doctors look at are the lungs.


The process the doctors go through takes about 12 minutes, they put their stethoscope on one part of the chest, on the lungs, around the whole body. Our jacket makes that process quicker.

It has three core sensors, and when a child puts it on, it detects the body’s information like temperature, breathing rate, and sound like lung crackles and wheezing, and then analyses it. The sensors pick the sound patterns from the chest and analyse these patterns in comparison to the expected or known behavioural patterns. Then an estimate of the likelihood of the disease is given depending on the analysed sound statistics.

The information is sent to a mobile phone, which means that people in rural areas can use their own phones to see the analysis. If a patient is then referred to hospital we have created an online storage of information and more software able to carry out extended analysis for the hospital.

After displaying the result on the app, it goes on to advise on the appropriate action, e.g. if the disease is severe, it advises the user to reach out to the nearest referral hospitals. The beauty of this is that the doctor can gauge the severity of the disease from the point it was first diagnosed by using the information stored on the cloud.




A child wearing the MamaOpe coat. Photo: The Royal Academy of Engineering.



“It’s easier than walking to a doctor”


[When they’re being examined by the doctor], most children tend to fight a lot, but the jacket can be put on without tears. We realized that we could make the experience comfortable for the child. This also means that the breathing rate is captured more accurately than it would if the child were frightened. Also since the jacket covers the child’s entire chest, it can take measurements at all points of interest, more quickly than the repetitive process that a healthcare worker has to go through.

This serves more purposes than going to a doctor. For people in a rural village who maybe don’t have access to a doctor, we want them to have access to the jacket. The whole idea is that it is something that can be used by healthcare professionals in the village or in a hospital. It’s easier to use than having to walk to a doctor. We’re looking to sell it for about 120 US dollars each, sell it to healthcare centres that serve over 800 people in rural areas.”



Initial design drawings of the coat. Photo: MamaOpe.


Initial data results show that the jacket is currently 70% effective (it is able to correctly diagnose 70 in every 100 cases), and the team is planning to improve it to a minimum of 90% effectiveness before it reaches the market.


We need funding so we can kick off mass production. After getting funding we will start marketing the product across the whole country, and then eventually across the African continent. We want to make partnerships with NGOs, and through those partnerships want to reach people who need it.



Pneumonia and malaria: sometimes

too similar to catch


Pneumonia is responsible for 16 per cent of infant deaths annually next to malaria’s 13 per cent in Uganda. Studies have shown that clinical signs (the symptoms that a doctor will observe when seeing a patient for the first time) are not enough to distinguish between malaria and a severe respiratory problem like pneumonia, but the two diseases require different treatment.

In 2006, Uganda became one of the country beneficiaries of the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), a campaign launched by then-US president George W. Bush to reduce malaria-related mortality across certain sub-Saharan African countries.

Measures taken by the country to combat malaria have overshadowed those to combat pneumonia. The country action plan drawn up between Uganda’s government and UNICEF noted that there was a decline in mortality from malaria whereas deaths related to pneumonia have been rising, which ties in with global trends. UNICEF reported in a later study that there was a 51 per cent decrease in deaths from pneumonia worldwide from 2000 to 2015 — a significant difference from the 86 per cent decrease in malaria-related deaths.




Next steps?


The product has already been shortlisted for the 2016/2017 Africa Prize by the Royal Academy of Engineering, and it will undergo further testing in order to be certified by country standards. Provisionally, the team are hoping it will hit the market in May 2017.


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