Student group travels to Uganda to finalize collaborative project aimed at improving reproductive health

After five years of research and design, a collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Anthropology, the Case School of Engineering and Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, have developed a small, discrete, biodegradable pouch to be used for the disposal of the waste created by DMPA-SC—a self-injectable contraceptive that protects against pregnancy.

As a member of the Global Health Design Collaborative (GHDC), the university’s students and Makerere University work together using anthropological methods and sustainable engineering solutions to solve pressing problems. This partnership is an extension of a more than 30-year Uganda-CWRU Research Collaboration. 

Each year GHDC students travel to Uganda to conduct field research with Makerere University students, exchange ideas and get feedback, but this year, they also presented and handed off the DMPA-SC project to their partner, PATH, an international non-governmental organization that works to eliminate health inequities in over 70 countries. 

Janet McGrath, professor of anthropology and GHDC, is excited and gratified to see the project reach fruition. 

“The goal of the student to student partnership is to facilitate understanding of global health challenges and appreciate the complexities of addressing these challenges,” she said. “The opportunity to work with PATH to develop a solution to DMPA-SC disposal has allowed students to participate in the process of design from conceptualization to manufacturing and finally handing off for implementation.” 

PATH approached the group with a challenge: to design less bulky packaging for the doses of DMPA-SC that patients needed to take home so they could avoid unwanted attention. During that initial meeting, the team stumbled on another problem they could help solve—disposing of the device after it is used. As it stood, most used devices were thrown into a latrine pit—a hole in the ground used as a toilet—which caused both a biohazard and environmental concern. 

“So we’re examining the injectable unit. It’s a cool little device that women can self-inject discreetly,” Andrew Rollins, professor of biomedical engineering and GHDC, said to The Observer. “When we asked them what would happen to the device after it was used, the people at PATH smiled and looked at each other. This was the very problem that was currently vexing them.”

While the design team worked on the packaging, the modeling team researched the risks associated with disposing of the device in the ground, and by early 2022 they had their solution—a discrete, biodegradable envelope that gave users privacy and protected the environment. The modeling team actually plans to publish their research findings in the coming months.

In March, the envelopes were officially launched by Robert Mutumba, principal medical

officer-clinical services at the Ministry of Health in Uganda, and distributed by PATH to patients across the country. 

“This achievement is the culmination of almost five years of research and prototype development,” Saloni Baral, second-year biomedical engineering student and CWRU team lead for the project, said to The Observer. “I am so excited to see our design being adopted by an entity like PATH that strives to promote women’s health globally.”

Learn more about the project in CWRU’s student newspaper, The Observer.