Innovation & Design

Life-Saving Design


The Index: Awards gave its People's Choice prize to a device for disposing of used needles. The inventor had a personal stake in the product design

"When I was nine, I was rescued," says industrial designer H?n Pham. She's not speaking metaphorically. Fleeing the communist Vietnamese regime in the 1980s, Pham, her older brother, and her father?? political dissident??ere plucked from the China sea by West German humanitarians after spending 36 hours crammed with 100 others in a fishing barge the size of a raft. They were taken to a U.N. refugee camp in Singapore, where a dirty vaccination needle caused a weeks-long battle with bacterial infection, which left her permanently scarred. "The terrible irony," she points out, "is the thing that was supposed to cure me made me worse."

Antivirus, the simple design she came up with as a result of her childhood ordeal, just scooped the People's Choice prize at the prestigious Index: Awards, touted by organizers as the world's largest design prize. Pham, who now runs her own design firm in Aarhus, Denmark??he country she emigrated to shortly after her Singaporean trauma??esigned the concept as part of a graduate school project at Designskolen Kolding in 2005.

Antivirus is a lightweight plastic cap that fastens to any metal soft drink or beer can, which medics can use to remove and sequester dangerous syringes. A system built into the cap dislocates the needles into containers; the design allows doctors and nurses working in harried conditions or developing countries to dispose of used needles easily and safely. The straightforward concept transforms a ubiquitous piece of trash into a potentially life-saving device.

Current Methods Unsafe

According to the most recent information released by the World Health Organization, some 16 billion injections are administered throughout the world annually. In 2005, contaminated needles led to 260,000 HIV infections, 1.3 million early deaths, and 23 million cases of hepatitis. WHO researchers estimate that as many as 50% of injections in developing countries might be unsafe.

In an attempt to reduce those numbers, Antivirus improves on common isolation methods for used needles. The "safety boxes" currently used by the World Health Organization and UNICEF are essentially cardboard containers, which hold 100 needles and cost $1.60 to $2 a piece. But the boxes can easily be opened if improperly discarded. "The boxes protect health-care staff," says Pham. "But once they've been put in a landfill, people??specially children??an be susceptible to infection." Scavenging for food scraps in dumps and landfills, already at-risk citizens can often come into contact with potentially life-threatening waste.

Pham spent six months working closely with the medical staff of Doctors Without Borders, who were able to present the Antivirus design in various stages of its evolution to aid workers in the field, to gauge their impression of the effectiveness of the device, and allow Pham to improve the design where necessary. This helped her to develop some of the design's logistical requirements as well as establish and test the warning iconography?? skull and crossbones motif and an icon of fingers and a hand being stuck by a syringe appear on the top of the cap.

Totally Tamper-Proof

After 10 months of work, the result is a device that cannot be opened once it has been attached, thanks to a locking mechanism that suctions the cap firmly onto the can. There's room for 150 to 400 needles, depending on the depth of the container. In production runs of 200,000, each Antivirus cap costs just 83??.

The cap's yellow color is a nearly universal indicator of biohazardous waste, and the thick, large overhang on its edges protects users' hands from being stuck by the needles being discarded, as well as preventing liquid splashback. Made in collaboration with SP-Moulding, a plastics molding company in Juelsminde, Denmark, the cap is designed to be disposed of with the can, eliminating another danger to handlers. And even small children's fingers cannot pass through the opening meant for needle tips.

Index: Awards are given out every two years, bestowed by the eponymous Copenhagen-based nonprofit group which recognizes designers working on issues of human health and safety as well as environmental sustainability. One of the competition's judges, Robert Blaich, chairman of the Seattle product development and design firm Teague, notes that Pham's design is simple, yet could have a hugely positive effect. "The simplicity is part of its beauty," he says. "But at the other end of the spectrum, that simplicity represents the potential to have a very positive impact on a broad swath of society."

Do-Right Designers

The design also fits in with the larger remit of the Index: Awards. "You'd expect a lot of high-end, purely aesthetic designs, especially with the Danish," Blaich says of this year's nominees. "But [entrants to the competition are] things like this: better solutions, better designs." And while the project was not given one of the competition's top awards (which instead went to the arguably more high-profile products such as the XO One Laptop Per Child PC and the Tesla roadster), Blaich, the former head of design for Herman Miller and Philips, says Antivirus "was high on our list."

Pham's moving personal story no doubt influenced the citizen judges of the People's Choice award, chosen by visitors to Index:'s exhibition (on show in Copenhagen until Sept. 23), and the readers of the Danish daily newspaper Politiken. But she hopes that this is not the end of her story. "Designers and manufacturers must do right," she says. "Designers don't always see it, but we have a responsibility to work for good, to do the right thing."

In the meantime, Pham, who is now working on a series of designs to minimize risks to intravenous drug users in Denmark, is lobbying international aid organizations and nonprofits to begin using Antivirus. Doctors Without Borders is investigating when it could begin using the product, and the WHO has expressed an interest in testing it. Pham's newfound fame can only help.

Matt Vella is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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