The First Aid Kit Designed to Save Lives on Rural African Roads

Zambia voters
Hundreds of people line up to vote at Kanyama Basic school, Lusaka, Zambia, August 11, 2016. GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

It's a common misconception that design is about aesthetics; it's a great deal more involved than that. Sometimes good design can mean the difference between poverty and prosperity, or even life and death.

For the past few years, we have been investigating how we could help alleviate the effects of road traffic injuries in Zambia. Collaborating with Judith Hall, an anaesthesiologist at Cardiff University, who initiated the project, our aim was to develop lifesaving equipment using a multi-disciplinary approach. We provided the design and ethnographic expertize and Hall gave her medical knowledge on what we needed.

Road traffic injuries (RTIs) are one of the leading causes of death among young people in Zambia. Some 70 percent of those who die in road accidents are the "breadwinners" in their household, which has resulted in RTIs becoming a major contributor to spiralling poverty in the region. In total, RTIs cost developing countries between 1 percent and 5 percent of GDP so although these incidents may feel like personal matters, they have huge social ramifications.

Zambia voters

The packs are intuitively designed and require no training to use. Author provided

Proper treatment in the immediate aftermath of an RTI makes a major difference between whether a victim lives or dies. Should they survive, it decreases the chances of major, lifelong disabilities, the consequences of which have very serious implications for the future of their dependants. Unfortunately, developing nations cannot normally afford medically trained personnel, nor the trauma equipment needed—a standard trauma pack can cost around £600 (around U.S$750).

It was with this in mind that we began to develop a pack specifically for this context. The resulting kit, which includes a neck brace, splints and bandages, can be used to stabilize RTI victims before they can receive proper medical attention. Each item is designed to prevent non-qualified first responders doing more harm than good. The neck brace, for example, has no access hole for a tracheotomy to be performed.

The pack and each item it contains is made from locally available materials using processes that are viable locally. The neck braces, for example, are formed from hand-waxed and sealed cardboard, while drainpipes are used as the basis for splints, and bicycle inner tubes for pressure bandages. It can be stored for long periods of time in village leaders' houses along major roads and will not degrade in rainy conditions. As the majority of the RTI first responders in Zambia are illiterate and untrained, the pack is made up of intuitive, life-saving equipment with easy-to-understand instructions that walk users through the globally-standard ABCDE sequence of care.

The trauma pack concept was also conceived as an enterprise development opportunity for manufacture and deployment in Zambia, using cheap, accessible, local materials and low-tech manufacturing processes. And the design—which was developed with the active involvement of 105 people from all walks of life in Zambia, and 25 medical experts in Britain—costs around 95 percent less than those available in the U.K.

Zambia voters

A sample neck brace from the pack. Author provided

We are now looking to run a pilot project in Zambia, and trial the trauma pack along a section of the Great Eastern Road, a major highway. From there we want to build the necessary links and knowledge, and get approval for the construction of a sustainable infrastructure to produce and deploy the packs.

Global help

Though our team's work will hopefully have a great effect on the treatment of RTI victims in Sub-Saharan Africa, use of the pack is not limited to this situation. We have started looking at how some of the concepts can be used outside the developing world, and have consulted experts in the British National Health Service, Red Cross, Welsh Ambulance Service and the U.K's Ministry of Defence to create a new, patent-pending design to be manufactured in the U.K. and sold in Europe and beyond. We are in the process of signing a licensing agreement with a manufacturer, and the first of these Zambia pack spin-offs is aimed at meeting the needs of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Red Cross Pack is very light, very cheap and compact. Like the Zambia Pack, it is designed to allow people with minimal training to treat the most common traumas. Though it was inspired by the Zambia Pack, the design is entirely different: it is a single-use, single-patient kit for deployment in large-scale humanitarian emergencies such as earthquakes.

Each of these packs is suitable for adults of all sizes and contains a low-cost three-in-one size neck brace (patent pending) and a six-in-one size arm and leg splint kit (patent pending). Both the neck brace and splints are made from corrugated plastic, and the whole kit is contained in a light-weight cardboard box with clear infographic directions.

We also have a series of other project ideas for the developing world. Plans are fluid at the moment, but in the mid-term we would like to set up a not-for-profit organization co-owned by our two universities to support developments through grants, charitable donations and profit-making activities.

Steve Gill is Professor of Product Design and Clara Watkins is Lecturer and Research Officer in Product Design at Cardiff Metropolitan University.