A smartphone app that can detect severe jaundice in newborns by scanning their eyes could help save lives in poor parts of the world, a new study suggests.

In a study co-authored with researchers from University College London (UCL) and the University of Ghana, a program called neoSCB was used to scan the eyes of more than 300 newborns in Ghana after an initial pilot study on 37 newborns in 2020. .

The app, developed by clinicians and UCL engineers, was used to analyze images taken on a smartphone, to quantify the yellowness of newborn eye proteins – signs of jaundice in newborns.

Vision analysis is unreliable, while the program may provide an early diagnosis of jaundice that requires treatment.

The study compared the effectiveness of the application with conventional screening methods and found that of the 336 infants tested, it correctly identified 74 of the 76 newborns with severe jaundice.

The study found that this is consistent with the accuracy of the most common screening method, a non-invasive device known as a percutaneous bilirubinometer, which correctly identified all 76 children with jaundice.

Dr Terence Lung of UCL, who developed the technology behind the app, said research has shown that the app is as good as the commercial devices recommended now.

He said “the app only requires a smartphone that costs less than a tenth of a commercial device.”

“We hope that once widespread, our technology can be used to save the lives of newborns in parts of the world where there are no expensive survey devices,” he said.

The head of the study, Dr Cristabel Enveronu-Laria of the University of Ghana, said the application method was “acceptable” for mothers in urban and rural areas participating in the study.

“Mothers have easily come up with ways to keep their baby’s eyes open, most often by starting breastfeeding,” she said.

While jaundice is common and usually harmless in newborns, in severe cases bilirubin, a substance that causes yellow skin, can enter the brain and lead to death or disability such as hearing loss, developmental delay and neurological disease.

Severe jaundice causes about 114,000 infant deaths each year and 178,000 cases of disability worldwide – despite being treatable.

Most cases occur in 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 usually at greater risk of severe jaundice because countries lack the resources needed for screening.

A commercial percutaneous bilirubinometer typically costs around £ 4,000 per device, and blood tests needed after the examination require more medical staff.

Higher rates of home births and early postpartum discharges may also contribute to fewer newborns being screened in poor countries.

Children in sub-Saharan Africa are also at greater risk due to the high prevalence of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency, an inherited genetic disease associated with an increased risk of hemolysis – when red blood cells are destroyed, they die faster than they die.

Senior author Dr Judith Mick of University College London Hospital said the program “has the potential to prevent death and disability worldwide in a wide variety of settings”.

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