Simple Treatment for Asthma Unfolds
Like magic, a single sheet of paper can become an intricate bird, a fearsome dragon, or a delicate flower, through the ancient art of origami. It can even become a solution to one of the world's most pressing pediatric health challenges: asthma.
The Respira spacer, designed by five Stanford Institute of Design students, is an efficient and ingenious twist on a device that improves the effectiveness of an asthma sufferer's inhaler. Made of inexpensive paper and able to fold flat for efficient shipping, the Respira spacer costs a mere 25 cents, as opposed to a typically bulky traditional spacer that can cost more than $50.
The device was so innovative it propelled the students to the finals of the Changemakers Disruptive Innovations in Health and Health Care competition earlier this year. And now the Respira spacer is poised for distribution in Mexico and Guatemala as part of a six-month trial sponsored by the Catholic Healthcare West Foundation for International Health.
Eric Green, one of the design students, said he hopes the test run will ultimately put the product into widespread use throughout the developing world. Within five years, the aim is for shipments of nearly 2.5 million spacers in Mexico alone, where asthma attacks lead to one million emergency room visits annually, 90 percent of which could be managed by using an inhaler combined with a spacer.
It was on a three-month trip to Mexico, visiting hospitals and clinics, that Green and his colleagues from Stanford’s interdisciplinary “Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability” graduate class were inspired to invent the folding paper spacer.
They saw first-hand that rural children were forced to travel up to hundreds of miles to visit an urban hospital to get treatment for an asthma attack, where it takes nearly 15 hours for an emergency room treatment on average, costing a patient’s family an average $40 in bus fares and lost wages for every acute attack.
Then once under treatment, a clinic’s asthma inhaler didn’t always help the children if they couldn’t coordinate their deep breathing with the inhaler’s discharge of medicine—a real difficulty for a young child gasping for breath during a frightening asthma attack. “The challenge is to make the medicine into an aerosol that reaches the lungs,” Green said.
Traditional spacers could do the trick, by creating a chamber attached to the inhaler that holds the medicine until the patient can inhale it, but Green and his fellow students learned that many Mexican hospitals simply could not afford them. That’s when the inspiration of origami hit them.
The Changemakers competition “helped introduce us to a number of people who were involved in the distribution on the ground of these technologies, and to understand how we were going to distribute the device,” Green said. “A number of people I got in touch with through the contest are lined up to work with us after the pilot is under way.”
“Our dream was to develop an idea and actually have it improve the lives of the people we’re working with,” he says. “We have this milestone now as proof of principle. We can get it into people’s hands.”
- Respira Design, the company co-founded by Eric Green
- Respira’s Changemakers entry
- New York Times Freakonomics Column
- NextBillion.net Interview with Eric Green