Red alert makes syringes safer

Tuesday, 25 February 2014 12:08 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A syringe that turns bright red after it has been used could dramatically reduce the number of unsafe injections in the developing world and save lives, says the researcher who came up with the idea.

David Swann of Huddersfield University in the United Kingdom has been shortlisted for the biennial World Design Impact Prize, which recognises projects that use industrial design solutions to improve social, economic andenvironmental quality of life.

“In an ideal world, every provider would adopt [single-use] safety syringes,” says Swann. “However this is not the case at the moment. Our ambition is to add patient safety value to an ordinary disposable syringe.” 

“By making invisible risk visible we seek to improve clinical compliance and empower literate and illiterate patients to make better risk decisions.”

David Swann, Huddersfield University

More than half of all injections in developing nations involve used or unsterilised needles, according to the WHO, and such injections cause more than 30 per cent of all hepatitis A and B cases and five per cent of all HIV cases. More than 1.3 million people globally die each year because of unsafe injection practices, says the WHO.

Swann’s syringe label rapidly absorbs carbon dioxide to produce a dramatic colour change, switching from colourless to red in two minutes following the syringe’s exposure to air, as it is taken out of its sterile packaging.

The change gives enough time to provide an injection, but alerts doctors and patients if the syringe has been used before, says Swann. He calls it the ABC Syringe (A Behaviour Changing Syringe).

“By making invisible risk visible we seek to improve clinical compliance and empower literate and illiterate patients to make better risk decisions,” he says. “We all recognise the colour red as a signal to stop regardless of geographical boundaries and language — think of traffic lights or automotive brake lights.”

Swann and his team have already tested people’s perception of red syringes on the streets of Mumbai, India. “All participants identified red as a signifier of danger,” he says.

Swann is now planning to commercialise his innovation, and says that he has received a number of offers for collaboration.

Innovative syringes save lives

The innovation follows in the footsteps of another inventor, UK entrepreneur Marc Koska. He is the founder of Safepoint, a charity that campaigns against unsafe injections, and has designed a single-use self-destructing syringe called LifeSaver.

In 2011, he persuaded the government of Tanzania to become the first country in the world to switch exclusively to his syringes. The authorities made the move after Koska played the health minister undercover videos of children being injected with used needles.

“Reusing syringes is the ninth ranking cause of death today in the world, and the traditional syringe is not a catalyst to improve the situation,” he says. “This colour change syringe is bright thinking and needs to be explored as a part of an overall solution.”

Traditional syringes are very cheap to make, costing only about three pence (five US cents) each.

Koska’s auto-disable and Swann’s colour syringes are also cheap to produce, but the pair need to convince manufacturers to change their production process, and governments and health organisations have to create a market for these single-use syringes, says Koska.

All new syringe technologies must be used “in concert” with what the market needs, he adds.

Swann says that even if innovative syringes are widely adopted, they will not solve the problem completely, because of the many ways that patient safety is disregarded during injections.

“History has shown us that absolute patient safety is illusory,” he says. “However, if innovations such as ours only delivered a one per cent impact, they would deliver an immeasurable impact for patient safety: reducing mortality and morbidity from life-limiting diseases.”

ABC syringe: A behaviour-changing syringe from David Swann on Vimeo.