REACHING OUT TO ASTHMA SUFFERERS DURING LOCKDOWN
Volunteers from the Woodcrafters’ Association of Durban went ‘above and beyond’ at the height of the pandemic lockdown when the Allergy Foundation of South Africa (AFSA), asked for help in making life-saving plastic bottle-spacers that were urgently needed for treating asthma.
Allan Ferguson and Dave Knight (both from Kloof) were two of the 16 members who helped cut and label over 40, 000 life-saving bottle spacers.
They thought nothing of turning their homes into production lines and working around the clock. They drew on their experience and skill to design, adapt and develop cost-effective machinery to make these life-saving plastic bottle-spacers. As a result, these low-cost, simple spacers were quickly available for asthma patients around the country.
Because they make the treatment of asthma more effective and safer, the bottle spacers promise to save thousands of lives. When asthma medication is self-administered and pumped into the mouth using an inhaler, the medication tends to mainly reach the back of the throat rather than the lungs, where it is most needed. When a spacer is attached to the inhaler the patient breathes the medication into the lungs.
It is far safer than a nebuliser, which, whilst very effective at pushing medication into the lungs, sprays the patient’s breath into the air, potentially spreading coronavirus and other germs, putting healthcare workers and fellow patients at risk.
Using low-cost plastic bottle spacers for the treatment of asthma has been done with success at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital (RCWMCH) since the 1990s. With the COVID-19 pandemic, it became critical to make this simple, life-saving equipment more widely available.
A LITTLE INNOVATION
Until recently, production of the bottle spacers was a manual, time-intensive process. Only about 500 were made each year. The new mission was to create hundreds of thousands in a short space of time and get them distributed to provincial hospitals and clinics around the country. The Allergy Foundation South Africa (AFSA) partnered with Polyoak Packaging and Habitat Industries to mass-produce the bottles using a customized blow-mould. These then had to be individually cut and labelled.
Twenty thousand bottles were destined for KwaZulu-Natal and here the members of the Woodcrafters’ Association of Durban came to the rescue, initially volunteering to cut the bottles. They did it so well and quickly that they were then asked to cut and label an additional 20, 000 spacers bound for the Eastern Cape. Furthermore, because they developed such efficient cutting and labelling machines, their designs have been shared and put to good use in other parts of the country.
Professor Mike Levin, Head of Allergy at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital and AFSA CEO, initially contacted the woodcrafters: “Woodworkers are skilled power tool operators and I had a feeling they may be able to help.” The members, most of whom are retired, responded enthusiastically to this plastic challenge; 16 of the 70 plus members volunteered to help.
Dave Knight agreed to coordinate his fellow members’ response. In June, a 14-ton lorry delivered the first batch of 20,000+ bottles to his home in Kloof. “An unanticipated challenge was storage – the 120 boxes filled our single garage,” said Knight.
Next was finding the best way to cleanly cut each bottle without creating dust or melting the plastic. Band-saws and Stanley knives were put to the test. Ninety-year old member Norman Rouillard, a retired dentist, trimmed an entire box of 180 bottles using a scalpel!
Retired machine-maker Allan Ferguson was the first to develop an efficient method, adapting a powered wood lathe with a circular cutting disk and a cradle to hold each bottle. This design was then shared with other operators. Production speeded up dramatically. “We eventually achieved a 10-minute turn around on 180 bottles!” says Knight.
LABELLED FOR LIFE
Labelling was another challenge.
“At first, labelling took forever. My family made it a social occasion. One evening my daughter, wife, nephew and sister-in-law did over 1,000 bottles in one sitting while watching TV. Eventually, they could label 180 bottles in 8 minutes, almost as quickly as I could cut them! Dave Knight
Knight’s family manually labelled over 8, 000 bottles. His daughter Jennifer used the off-cuts to fill eco-bricks. Meanwhile, machine whizz Ferguson took a more mechanical approach, building a labelling machine with a motorized cradle, optical switch and pivoting paintbrush to help apply the self-adhesive label.
“This bottle spacer programme is a powerful tool in the fight against preventable deaths from asthma. We sincerely thank the Woodworkers’ Association of Durban members who have shared their time, talent and expertise to assist,” says Professor Levin.
AFSA has been working hard to make the bottle spacers available to all. To date over 100, 000 have been distributed: 30 000 to Western Cape; 20 000 each to Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and KZN; then another 20 000 intended for North West.
For more information about the plastic bottle space programme, asthma and the Allergy Foundation South Africa, visit www.allergyfoundation.co.za, follow @SAallergy on social media or contact Lynn Kämpf, Business Manager of the Allergy Foundation South Africa on firstname.lastname@example.org.