A smartphone app that can identify severe jaundice in newborns by scanning their eyes could help save lives in poorer parts of the world, a new study has found.
In the study – co-authored by researchers from University College London (UCL) and the University of Ghana – an app called neoSCB was used to scan the eyes of more than 300 newborn babies in Ghana, at following a first pilot study on 37 newborns in 2020.
The app, developed by UCL clinicians and engineers, was used to analyze images taken on a smartphone to quantify yellowing of the whites of the eyes of newborn babies, a sign of neonatal jaundice.
Sight analysis is unreliable, while the app can give an early diagnosis of jaundice requiring treatment.
The study compared the app’s effectiveness with conventional screening methods and found that out of 336 babies tested, it correctly identified 74 out of 76 newborns with severe jaundice.
The study found this matched the accuracy of the most common screening method, a non-invasive device known as a transcutaneous bilirubinometer, which correctly identified all 76 babies with jaundice.
UCL’s Dr Terence Leung, who developed the technology behind the app, said the study showed the app is as good as currently recommended commercial devices.
He said “the app only requires a smartphone, which costs less than a tenth of the commercial device.”
“We hope that once deployed at scale, our technology can be used to save the lives of newborns in areas of the world that do not have access to expensive screening devices,” he said. .
Study leader Dr Christabel Enweronu-Laryea, from the University of Ghana, said the app’s method was “acceptable” to mothers in both urban and rural areas taking part in the study.
“Mothers easily found ways to keep the baby’s eye open, most often by initiating breastfeeding,” she said.
While jaundice is common and usually harmless in newborn babies, in severe cases bilirubin, the substance that causes a yellow complexion, can enter the brain and lead to death or disabilities such as hearing loss, delays development and neurological disorders.
Severe jaundice causes approximately 114,000 newborn deaths each year and 178,000 cases of disability worldwide, although it is a treatable condition.
Most cases occur within the first week after birth.
In high-income countries, routine screening for early diagnosis reduces the risk of serious complications.
Newborns in low- and middle-income countries are generally at higher risk of severe jaundice because these countries do not have the resources for screening.
A commercial transcutaneous bilirubinometer usually costs around £4,000 per device and the blood tests required after screening require more healthcare workers.
Higher rates of home births and early postnatal discharge may also contribute to fewer newborns being screened in poorer countries.
Babies in sub-Saharan Africa are also at greater risk due to a high prevalence of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency, an inherited genetic condition associated with an increased risk of haemolysis – where red blood cells break down faster. rate they are made – and hyperbilirubinemia.
Lead author Dr Judith Meek, from University College London Hospitals, said the app “has the potential to prevent death and disability around the world in many different settings”.