Pneumonia, which claims the lives of more than 1.2 million children under the age of 5 every year, is the leading cause of death in children worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. And in certain regions, such as South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, pneumonia alone accounts for 85 percent of pediatric deaths.
So it comes as little surprise that Microsoft, through its Imagine Cup Grants program, has awarded its second-place prize of $75,000 to a team out of Australia that is developing a tool to diagnose the infection quickly and affordably. (The first-place prize went to a team out of Germany that aims to reduce carbon emissions via nunav, a vehicular navigation system.)
Called StethoCloud, the system comprises an app and a stethoscope embedded with a microphone that connects to a cell phone, allowing users to record breath sounds and upload them to a cloud service for remote diagnosis. (Pneumonia can usually be detected through sound in kids, whose lungs would otherwise sound pretty normal.)
When I spoke with team member Hon Weng Chong in September, not long after Microsoft announced Team StethoCloud was a finalist in the Imagine Cup, he said it was when he saw children suffering from pneumonia that the kernel of the idea first came to him. (When we spoke Chong was still a med student, but he has just passed his exams and is now a doctor.)
"What attracted me to the Imagine Cup competition was the theme of using technology to solve the world's toughest problems," Chong said. "And I've seen what childhood pneumonia does, not just from a global health perspective and statistical point of view, but also seeing it in real life during my time as a medical student during my pediatric rotation, coming came face to face with children who suffered from it."
After building the prototype in his garage for less than $20 last year, Chong recruited another med student and two programmers to help build the algorithms and design the app.
Currently, the app runs through a quick checklist, including how long the child has exhibited symptoms. The user is then instructed to check for two types of abnormal breathing, which are demonstrated by video, and the user records the child's breathing for five seconds at each of six different points on the back.
Chong admits that StethoCloud relies on a certain level of infrastructure in places that just might not be there yet, requiring not just smartphones but also fast networks and even access to power. But he still sees a place for it in remote clinics where caregivers don't necessarily have the expertise to make diagnoses themselves.
Chong says the next step is to hire clinical researchers to collect data for 10 to 12 months and then validate the algorithms against clinical data obtained from pediatric patients. Ultimately he hopes to extend the research to Malaysia, India, Ghana, South Africa, and Mozambique. The $75,000 grant will go a long way in making that happen.