A publication of the Asian Development Bank No. 2     December 2008
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Modified nipple shields are being developed to prevent transmission of the HIV virus during breast feeding
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Engineers Without Borders

Student volunteers find creative and technical solutions to development problems

SAFE WATER Potable water remains a luxury in many Lao PDR villages
Photo by AFP

Young engineers are using their technical expertise to help provide livelihood skills, clean water, and safer breast-feeding practices in places as diverse as the mountains of Tajikistan, the rain forests of Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the deserts of sub-Saharan Africa.

During the last year, Engineers Without Borders (EWB-UK), a student-led charity founded in the United Kingdom in 2002 and committed to providing engineering solutions for sustainable development, has worked on several innovative projects.

For example, Sarah Ong, a manufacturing engineering graduate from Cambridge University, has been putting her education to use in the rugged Pamir mountain range of Tajikistan, an impoverished former member of the Soviet Union that is still struggling following economic collapse and civil war after independence in the early 1990s.

With the help of an EWB-UK bursary, Ong spent the spring in the Pamir region exploring the feasibility of generating income from using fine yak hair. The “Yak Yak” project, set up by the NGO, Operation Mercy Tajikistan, is using yak down, which was usually discarded, to make high-end knit products.

Although the end product has yet to be finalized, progress has been made to handtuft the down, collect spun samples, and knit prototype hats and scarves. Ong plans to return to Tajikistan for 2 years to test the reliability and quality of production and look for partner organizations.

In the Lao PDR in Southeast Asia, another EWB-UK volunteer has been helping to address the lack of potable water, especially in the hilly, rural areas. Many villages lack access to the national power grid and, with firewood in short supply, remote communities often lack the means to purify water. Besides malaria, diseases caused by drinking unpurified water have become the greatest cause of infant mortality in the country. The Lao PDR has the 23rd highest rate of infant mortality in the world despite a government pledge to reduce by two thirds from 1990 levels the mortality rate of under-5-year olds by 2015.

In late 2008, Andrew Murfin, a volunteer and qualified engineer, was working on developing a solar-powered water purification unit that will provide some of the most remote Lao communities with a safe and reliable supply of water. Based on the existing RSD 800 model, Murfin’s unit can purify about 3,600 liters of water a day at a cost of $0.70 per cubic meter.

Working alongside Sunlabob, a Lao PDR–based manufacturer of renewable technology, Murfin hopes the unit will be simple enough that it can be maintained by locals—and that it can generate income through the sale of bottled water. Now in its late stage, the project is expected to install its first unit in the remote village of Ban Sor in the northeastern part of the country.

In Africa, another EWB-UK volunteer, Stephen Gerrard, and his team are combating high rates of infant mortality by developing modified nipple shields to prevent the transmission of the HIV virus during breast feeding, though these have yet to be marketed.

The World Health organization (WHO) estimates that 700,000 children are born each year to HIV–positive mothers, mostly in Africa, and that each year about 50,000 babies acquire HIV through breast feeding. “Although WHO recommends the use of formula feeding as a replacement (for breast-feeding), this can also lead to many deaths from diarrhea and malnutrition in lowresource settings,” says Elizabeth Kneen, a team member.

So Gerrard and his team have come up with an approach that requires minimal changes to breast-feeding practices. This involves adapting a nipple shield to disinfect breast milk. “We have added a non-woven material similar to felt, and impregnated the material with a common compound that deactivates HIV without harming the baby,” says Gerrard. “This allows mothers to feed the baby rather than having to collect and heat milk, which can be an impractical method of disinfecting the HIV virus in developing nations.”

The team, which met at the International Design Development Summit at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in August, is looking for laboratories to help test the device, as well as other possible applications, including for pediatric medicine delivery.

The cost-effectiveness of the technology is a big advantage. David Sokal, a medical practitioner and another team member, estimates that the device will cost $0.27 a day, which is low compared to baby formula, which costs $3.75 a day. The cost of a filter (non-woven material containing the compound), which has to be changed daily, is around $0.20 and the nipple shield, which lasts for at least a month, is less than $2. “We still have a long way to go but it will make a big difference if it works out,” says Gerrard.