Neonatal jaundice is caused by the accumulation of bilirubin, a breakdown product of hemoglobin in red blood cells. Approximately two-thirds of all newborns have some jaundice, giving a characteristic yellow color to the skin and eyes. Although many babies recover without any intervention, one in twelve newborns have severe jaundice requiring an effective but simple treatment: phototherapy. When a jaundiced baby is treated with phototherapy, the skin is exposed to a bright blue light that converts the bilirubin in the blood to a form excreted harmlessly in the urine. If a baby with severe jaundice does not receive phototherapy in a timely manner, bilirubin may accumulate in the brain, causing permanent brain damage or even death.
Phototherapy is so effective that complications from jaundice are rare in developed countries where devices are widely available. However, each year in low and middle income countries, an estimated 6 million babies do not receive needed phototherapy because they lack access to effective devices.
The consequences are dire. Severe jaundice is responsible for up to 30% of newborn deaths in many underdeveloped areas, and surviving infants are often left with permanent disabilities such as cerebral palsy, blindness, and hearing loss.
Commercial phototherapy devices in developed countries are large, heavy, and expensive, costing about US$3,000 per unit. They require trained personnel to operate and continuous electrical current to work reliably. Although this equipment is very effective in curing jaundice, it is not a viable solution to treat jaundice in remote areas without electricity where mortality from jaundice remains high.