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Combatting diseases

A robust public health system can provide the support necessary to reduce risk factors associated with both communicable and non-communicable diseases – the latter being the leading cause of death worldwide. Simple interventions that could prevent the death of millions include improving access to vaccines, fighting the spread of diseases, raising awareness and changing behaviours – with the assistance of relatively low-cost medical devices and treatments.

Everyone has a fundamental right to appropriate health care, along with access to medicine and vaccines – both of which are crucial in combating diseases and improving lives.

The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides guidance on achieving essential and universal health coverage addressing both communicable and non-communicable diseases. The targets in the Agenda may be ambitious, but even simple measures and interventions can prevent millions of deaths every year.

Communicable diseases are caused by microorganisms and can be transmitted from one person to another either directly or indirectly. Examples include HIV/AIDS, Ebola, flu, hepatitis A and B, and rabies. Vaccines play a very important role in preventing the spread of infectious diseases, leading to a dramatic reduction over the decades. The number of measles cases reported globally has decreased markedly over the past few decades due to an increase in infant immunisation coverage, which has grown from just 17% in 1980 to 86% in 2016.

However, 19.5 million children around the world are still not receiving routine vaccinations. In developing countries, this can be partly attributed to hard-to-reach remote communities, such as those located in the middle of deserts, jungles, and mountains. Long delivery journeys, particularly in countries of a hot climate, can also compromise the efficacy of vaccines, which must be stored at appropriate temperatures to maintain their potency. Thermometers, refrigerators and cool boxes are therefore indispensable in combating communicable diseases.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) can be divided into four main groups: cardiovascular disorders, cancers, chronic respiratory conditions and diabetes. It is estimated that NCDs are responsible for 71% (41 million) of all deaths every year – with a third of these being premature deaths (people aged between 30 and 69 years). NCDs occur as a result of the combination of genetic, environmental, physiological and behavioural factors. An example of environmental-related factor is outdoor air pollution, a serious problem that affects our modern society as a consequence of increased demand for transport and industrialisation. It is estimated that 95% of the global population breathes unhealthy air, which can lead in the long-term to respiratory diseases, cancers, strokes, and heart attacks. It contributed to over six million deaths in 2016, with a disproportionate share (90%) of these deaths occurring in developing countries.

In terms of behavioural factors, lifestyle changes alone can significantly reduce the risk of developing NCDs, as well as managing living with such diseases. These include actions such as quitting or reducing tobacco use, adopting a healthy diet, becoming more physically active and consuming alcohol responsibly. Cardiovascular disorders – responsible for about 17.9 million deaths each year – are the leading cause of NCD deaths globally. It is known that high blood pressure is a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, which can be diagnosed using simple medical devices like blood pressure meters. Furthermore, poor blood circulation can worsen diabetes complications and vice-versa, as high sugar levels can damage the blood vessels.

Regular health checks can prevent and detect diseases, improving the chances of a successful treatment – which in turn leads to longer and better-quality lives.

Tackling disease through technology

Much of the global burden of diseases can be reduced by controlling the spread of transmittable microorganisms and promoting healthy lifestyles. This can be supported by a variety of health technologies, including vaccines, medical devices, medications, protective equipment and ICT. Aluminium, copper, and zinc are just some of the metals used in the manufacturing of essential health technologies such as injectable vaccines and blood pressure monitors.

  • Cold chain equipment

    Cold chain (or immunisation supply chain) is the system used to safely store and transport vaccines within safe temperature ranges in order to maintain product quality from the moment of manufacture until the point they are administered to people. Technologies used to preserve vaccines include cold boxes, refrigerated trucks, refrigerators and vaccine carriers. Communities established in remote locations usually have no access to electricity, posing a serious obstacle to the continuity of the cold chain. Solar-powered refrigeration (or photovoltaic refrigeration units) can be an efficient and effective solution where mains electricity is unreliable but sunlight is abundant. They might be more expensive to buy and install, but running costs are considerably lower when compared to electric/compression models.

    The cabinet and door of refrigerators can be made of aluminium or steel. The compressor, condenser and coils can be made of copper, aluminium, or an alloy, while tubing is usually made of copper. The addition of a solar panel and a battery further requires lithium, silicon, germanium and nickel. For injectable vaccines, hypodermic needles are usually made of stainless steel, and can be nickel-plated to prevent corrosion. The tube, that carries the vaccine, and the plunger – that pushes the fluid through the needle – can be made of glass or plastic.

  • Antimicrobial copper surfaces

    As well as vaccines, copper surfaces can help fight the spread of infectious diseases. Furthermore, they can combat a serious global concern: antimicrobial resistance. Antimicrobial resistance is the ability of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites to survive drug-treatments which once were effective against them. Studies have shown that copper has strong antimicrobial properties and has effectively worked on antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Copper and copper alloys (like brass and bronze) can be used to make taps, sinks, handles, and can even be woven into pyjamas and bed sheets in combination with other materials. This is a simple and effective.

  • Blood pressure monitors

    Blood pressure meters are essential medical devices used to measure systolic and diastolic pressure. They can be used to detect and prevent cardiovascular diseases as the devices indicate how blood is being pumped through the body by the heart. Solar-powered versions of a regular blood pressure monitor are ideal for low-resource settings and remote areas without access to electricity. The meters can be either manual or automatic (with a digital display), consisting of a cuff, a mechanism to inflate the cuff, and a unit that measures the pressure. In the case of a manual device, the squeeze bulb and the constricting cuff are usually made of neoprene, while the dial can be made of brass, aluminium, or plastic. The control valve is usually made of polycarbonate, brass and/or stainless steel.