Why This 20ft Shipping Container Surgical Sterilisation Unit Could Save Millions of Lives
Here at the Gateway Gazette we have shown some pretty cool shipping container conversions. But this shipping container conversion could save millions of lives – a 20ft shipping container hospital surgical sterilisation unit.
In developing countries the rates of post-operative infection are huge, with around 1 in 3 people undergoing even the simplest surgery getting infected because the surgical instruments used by the surgeons aren’t sterile.
Where we hear scare stories of ‘superbugs’ such as MRSA that infect people in hospitals in Australia and the West, the rates of post-operative infection in developing countries are nine times higher than in our own hospitals. Post-operative infections are no joke, with people sometimes having limbs removed or even dying in hospital, not from the problem they walked in with but a bug caught on the operating table.
Doctors in developing countries aren’t blasé or stupid about the issues they face. They are just as good as the doctors we have here, and many eventually emigrate to the West for better incomes and conditions with a minimal conversion course to work in our hospitals.
The problem they often face is that the hospitals they work in just don’t have the money to even buy the sterilisation equipment, to properly maintain it if they have it, or even to power the equipment even if it is in good working order. Where a hospital in our country can cost around $1.6 billion a year to run, that sort of cash just isn’t available in developing countries’ hospitals that often can’t afford the power to run a basic unit, let alone the latest whizz bang CAT Scan we get put in with a bash to the head.
Looking for a modern solution to a problem faced by hundreds of millions of people around the world, Professor Douglas Schuler at the Rice Business School in Texas started seeking cheap and effective solutions. At first, making the blind assumption that it is always sunny in developing countries, he designed and built a solar powered autoclave sterilisation unit that used focused sunlight to heat surgical instruments to extremely high temperatures that would kill every dangerous bug. The problem is that it isn’t always sunny in developing countries. For example, the Caribbean island of Haiti may be a sunshine island but many of its problems come with being in the path of hurricanes and tropical storms!
While the solar powered autoclave that burns off the bugs is relatively cheap, instead Prof Schuler had to go for a more expensive solution, but one that is sustainable in the long term.
Solar powered sterilisation unit
His solution was something very similar to what we find in our hospitals in the West, with some modifications for areas with no power or direct water supply. Sitting in a 20ft shipping container the unit is solar powered with a battery system to store energy when there is no available sunlight. Because it will not always be used where water comes from a mains system, it has two water tanks that can be filled by pump or by hand, including one mounted on the roof to supply the equipment. The technician pumps the water into that tank by hand.
Inside the unit are two rooms. The first room is connected to the outside and acts as a buffer from the sterile area. Inside the sterile room there is a cleaning area with three stations. The dirty equipment goes into three sinks to remove blood and other substances, before being dropped into an enzyme bath to begin killing the bugs. After being soaked, the surgical tools are put in an electric steam autoclave to heat them to the point no dangerous bug can live on them. Finally they are dried on special racks and then kept in sterile containers for re-use. Accounting for the fact that it can get ridiculously hot in a container in the heat of the sun, there is a simple air conditioning system to help the technicians work in some comfort.
Where the solar powered autoclave was extremely cheap by comparison and could be bought by even the poorest healthcare systems, this sounds quite expensive. However, later this year it will be tried for the first time in Lilongwe, Malawi, which is one of the poorest countries in the world. If it does work then one hopes that NGOs will find the money to help supply governments with the kit and if so, it could potentially save thousands of lives a year and take much of the risk of going to hospital from families in developing countries.
Gateway Container Sales
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