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U.Va. Biomedical Engineering Students Race The Clock To Design Cheap, Safe, Secure Needle Disposal System

March 1, 2000 -- Dr. Charles Sagoe-Moses, a top public health official in Accra, Ghana, has a problem. Syringes used in national vaccination campaigns are not being properly disposed of. The result is that some public health workers are accidentally being stuck with dirty needles.

During his stay last year at the University of Virginia as a fellow in the International Training and Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases Program, Sagoe-Moses spoke with Janine Jagger about this problem. Jagger is the Becton-Dickenson Professor of Healthcare Worker Safety and director of U.Va.’s International Healthcare Worker Safety Center. The author of a landmark study of needle-stick injuries, she invented some of the first methods of syringe disposal available anywhere.

But current safety needles and disposal systems now in the American marketplace are too expensive for many developing countries to adopt on a large scale. Another approach was needed.

So, Sagoe-Moses approached William Walker, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, who agreed to take on the challenge. Since October 1998, Walker has been working with a team of students -- five undergraduates and five graduate students -- to come up with a design that can solve this problem faced by Ghana and other developing countries.

The students first gathered for a brainstorming session and came up with about two dozen designs. Then they ranked the designs according to the criteria established for the project in order of priority: 1) health care worker safety; 2) prevent reuse; 3) ease of use; 4) durability; 5) cost; 6) ease of handling; 7) potential for recycling; and 8) efficiency in waste management.

"There were two designs that crushed the others," Walker said.

The team proceeded with those two designs, one of which resembles a peg board, the other a "butterfly" device that folds open for use and closes for shipping and storage.

The students are closing in on success. The two designs developed by the Syringe Disposal Design Team recently won a $20,000 grant from the National Collegiate Invention and Inventor Association. The funds, released today [March 1, 2000] are to finance the refinement of the designs, a thorough market analysis and construction of prototypes by Feb. 28, 2001: one year away.

Then, if all goes according to plan, the team will seek corporate partners interested in licensing the technology and manufacturing the products. The team expects its main customer to be the World Health Organization, which in turn would handle distribution of the needle disposal systems to public health agencies throughout the developing world.

Even if things don’t go according to plan, Walker believes the exercise will have been a success.

"We’re doing this project as a public service," he said. "If people end up using our design for free, we’ll count that as a victory."

For more information, call William Walker at (804) 924-9950, or bwalker@virginia.edu.

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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