Researchers at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich) in Switzerland have developed a wearable, called Accurate Model for Bio-Composition Analysis (AMBICA), which can indicate a child’s level of dehydration.

Research lead, Head of the Mobile Health Systems Laboratory in the Department of Health Sciences and Technology at ETH Zurich, Walter Karlen, developed the idea for AMBICA while doing research at Stellenbosch University on methods of monitoring dehydration in children living in under-resourced areas.

Dehydration resulting from diarrhoea is the second highest cause of fatality among children under five years old, the first being pneumonia. Children living in developing countries are most at risk of suffering diarrhoea due to poor hygiene and contact with contaminated water. In rural areas it’s often the case that the nearest healthcare facility or trained healthcare provider is hundreds of kilometres away, meaning children are unable to be treated effectively.

A child can be diagnosed with dehydration by visually checking the moisture of their eyes, the elasticity of their skin and looking inside their mouth to see if the mucous membranes are dry. While an experienced doctor can make the diagnosis visually, it is difficult for untrained people to notice the symptoms.

In collaboration with mechanical engineering students from ETH Zurich and an industrial design student from the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK), Karlen started developing a device that could be used by non-healthcare professionals to objectively measure dehydration over longer periods of time.

The AMBICA prototype consists of two identical blue cuffs made of EVA plastic, one for hand and the other for the foot, each of which has two embedded electrodes connected by a cable. Through the electrodes, a weak electrical current is injected into the body and the resistance calculated.

Through bioelectrical impedance analysis the wearable can indicate the concentration of water in the body. A green LED on the wrist indicates if hydration is increasing, a red LED indicates if it’s decreasing, and an alarm is triggered when the situation is critical.

“Monitoring takes place in real-time and eliminates the need for the presence of medical professionals. This relieves the strain on medical personnel at stations, while increasing the chance of survival for dehydrated children,” said Karlen in an interview with ETH Zurich.

Currently, Karlen and his team are further testing and tweaking the prototype to find a small enough sensor. They are also developing an accompanying mHealth platform to collect data from AMBICA to enable further analysis. For example, the data could be used to determine which areas are mostly affected and peak times of dehydration, which could be used to spearhead awareness campaigns.

The first field study test using AMBICA is expected to take place over a four month period, starting in December 2017, in the Western Cape.

In the future Karlen hopes that his invention will get backing from NGOs to enable mass production, which he believes could be done for just over R1,000 per device. “Ideally, the devices would be produced locally, which would not only save lives, but also create desperately needed jobs,” said Karen.

The AMBICA project has been funded by the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development through an ETH Engineering for Development scholarship.

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