healthHealth and Medicine

Here's How Shampoo Bottles Are Saving Children From Pneumonia


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer


Shampoo not included. Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock

Healthcare in even the wealthiest countries is far from perfect, with inequality reigning supreme, meaning the rich have the best access to the best treatments. At least, however, such treatments and technologies are available – poorer nations often fall on less fortunate times.

Without a proper health infrastructure in place, and without assistance from aid workers, some medical professionals have resorted to some incredibly creative endeavors. As has been reported in a few places over the past year, Bangladesh’s Dr Mohammod Chisti is one such entrepreneurial, resourceful expert.


As noted by the Dhaka Tribune, Chisti decided in 1996 that he was exhausted at seeing so many young children and babies die from pneumonia, so he began to think of a way to do something about it. Per the Economist, 20 years of painstaking research resulted in a curious solution: shampoo bottles.

Anyone can get pneumonia, an inflammation of the tissue in your lungs triggered, for the most part, by an infection by the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacterium. Viral and fungal infections can also cause the affliction, and it can take hold of certain patients within hospitals too.

Having a range of symptoms that can develop slowly or within 24 hours, the danger is that the tiny air sacs within your lungs dangerously fill with fluids, compromising your ability to respire. The immunocompromised, the young, and the elderly are most at risk here.

Although rest, plenty of fluids, and a course of antibiotics can ward off the disease, those high-risk groups often need extra assistance. This normally comes in the form of an artificial breathing aid, a ventilator, but they are far more commonplace in wealthier nations, which also contain the necessary staff to operate such a device.


Partly as a result of the lack of these in developing countries, pneumonia remains a prolific killer. Per the World Health Organization (WHO), it accounts for 16 percent of all deaths of children under 5 years old. In 2015, 920,136 perished as a result, mostly within sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

BBC News notes that the WHO’s low-cost alternative, a low-flow oxygen deployment, still results in the deaths of one in seven of the children affected by pneumonia.

That’s where Dr Chisti comes in. Taking inspiration from more complex airway pumps that prevent the collapse of the lungs, he took an empty shampoo bottle, added water, and inserted a series of simple tubes.

The children inhale oxygen from a tank, and then exhale into the tubes, which blows bubbles in the water. This increases the air pressure in the shampoo bottle, which is transferred back to the lungs, preventing them from collapsing.


A landmark 2015 study in The Lancet emphasizes Chisti's success. Trialed on just a few kids at first, it became a two-year-long open, randomized trial, comparing oxygen therapy to the shampoo bottle method.

“Children who received oxygen by bubble CPAP had significantly lower rates of death than the children who received oxygen by low-flow oxygen therapy,” the paper concludes, triumphantly. The Tribune reported that it led to a 75 percent decrease in the death rates of afflicted children.

The hospital itself in Dhaka switched to the shampoo bottle method, meaning that they began to save more lives and, also rather importantly, plenty of money on equipment.

It’s not quite an open-and-shut case just yet, though: The paper notes that the trial had to be stopped early, as there were too many deaths in the low-flow oxygen groups, which the authors acknowledge “reduces the certainty of the findings”.


Still, it’s certainly promising; hopefully, future trials will clarify just how effective the shampoo bottle method actually is.

[H/T: The Economist, BBC News]


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