According to data from the World Health Organization, pneumonia kills more children than any other cause. This is particularly true in developing countries, where access to clean water, nutritious food and clean shelter is lacking. Pneumonia is a lung infection characterized by a wet cough, fever and phlegm production. The illness can be caused by both bacteria and viruses. What’s more, around the world, this infection kills 1.5 million children under the age of five per year. This is roughly 20% of all child deaths. Pneumonia claims most of its victims in sub-Saharan Africa, where both doctors and antimicrobial medications are scarce.
The infection presents as an acute inflammation of the air sacs in the lungs known as alveoli. This inflammation leads to the production of mucus, and the alveoli often rupture, causing the patient to cough frequently. Bloody mucus is often produced during this process, and patients may report difficulty breathing. X-rays and sputum cultures can lead to quick diagnosis, but in areas such as South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, this is not always practical. Children may have to endure long trips to a hospital in searing heat to gain access to diagnostic tests, and the journey often proves too much to bear.
Limitations of the Stethoscope
The stethoscope has long been used as a diagnostic device in the detection of respiratory illnesses. Unfortunately, the device only amplifies sounds; it does not provide analysis. This is left to the physician, and several recent studies have found that most new doctors are poorly trained in diagnosing illness with the device. Most body sounds are extremely faint, and it takes an experienced ear to detect illness. In areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, where doctors are already spread thin, this issue is particularly pronounced.
Furthermore, while a stethoscope can reveal the symptoms of pneumonia, a physician can’t use it to confirm diagnosis. For this, samples must be sent off to a lab. However, penicillin G, the go-to antibacterial for pneumonia, is both cheap and effective. The issue for doctors operating in impoverished areas is that they risk over-medicating the population if they treat with penicillin without confirmation of infection.
Medical school students Andrew Lin and Hon Weng Chong of Australia strove to address this issue by developing a stethoscope that could interface directly with a smartphone. They fitted a standard stethoscope with a microphone, and they’ve authored an app that analyzes the breathing rhythms of infected individuals in real-time. Doctors often try to expedite the diagnosis process by observing an affected child’s breathing rhythm, but this is hard to do as sick children tend to squirm.
Chong and Lin’s device, dubbed the StethoCloud, provides an objective solution by analyzing the patient’s breathing rhythm with a complex algorithm. It can then give health care professionals an on-the-spot diagnosis. The device’s creators hope that the StethoCloud will give health care professionals in these areas the confidence to administer treatment in the field as soon as pneumonia is detected. Lin and Chong are quick to point out that the device will be affordable enough to be deployed to these regions en masse. The device, and others like it, may enable doctors to treat the disease up to 72 hours sooner, which could translate into hundreds of thousands of lives saved per year.