We Know How Cerebral Malaria Kills Children — But Do We Know How to Save Them?

Donated medical devices are not the solution, part 58

Donated medical devices are not the solution, part 58 – ultrasounds in Kisoro, Uganda (photo: me, 2013)

We now know how cerebral malaria kills children. But do we know how to save them? An otherwise-fantastic NPR story suggests a solution that is, unfortunately, exactly wrong for the scope and scale of the problem: donated medical devices.

And the problem of cerebral malaria is a massive problem. Malaria is a wicked disease, causing an estimated 584,000 deaths in 2013 – 78% of which were children under five. Plasmodium falciparum, one of the five malaria species known to infect humans, is the most common and the most deadly, in part because it can end up in the microvasculature of the brain, causing what is known as cerebral malaria.

Cerebral malaria is particularly deadly for children, but until now, researchers didn’t really know why. A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that cerebral malaria kills them by, effectively, suffocating them:

Our study design addressed the sources of this uncertainty, and the findings suggest that brain swelling and the likely increase in intracranial pressure that is associated with brain swelling are strong predictors of death in Malawian children with cerebral malaria.

Basically, brain swelling kinks the brain stem, shutting off the autonomic nervous system; the patient no longer breathes independently, and, without assisted breathing through a mechanical ventilator, dies. (Now is a good time to mention that I have no clinical background, so, grain of salt…)

The NPR story highlights a potential solution:

One possibility is to try putting the child on a ventilator, John says. “Then, during a period when brain swelling might affect the child’s ability to breath, you could breath for them,” he says. Then take the child off the ventilator when the brain swelling goes down.

Many clinics in Africa don’t have ventilators or physicians trained to use them, John says. “It’s going to be very hard to implement that across Africa. But I would love to see ventilators tested.”

And if a malaria ward in Malawi can get a million-dollar MRI machine, surely somebody could donate life-saving ventilators.

Emphasis mine. This framing – donation as solution – is the absolute wrong way to think about the problem, for three reasons.

First, medical device donations fail. Predictably. All the time. I am a broken record on this subject.

Even if donated medical devices functioned as they are supposed to, this is too big a problem to solve with second-hand donations. Every mid-sized hospital that can support one (more on that in a minute) should have a ventilator, and it’s wrong to think that a second-hand donations market could support that demand.

And lastly, donated ventilators aren’t built for low-resource hospitals; they’re built for hospitals with consistent electricity, highly-trained clinical staff, and a support ecosystem with trained biomedical engineers and spare parts immediately available. None of this can be assumed for the vast majority of hospitals that would see cerebral malaria patients in low-resource regions.

The solution, then, is not a second-hand donation; it’s a ventilator designed for the environments in which it will be used in. Here I’m a broken record as well.

It is wonderful that we now know, clinically, what it takes to save the lives of children with cerebral malaria. But donated ventilators aren’t up to the task.

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