A new monitoring system aims to make the mix-up, or theft, of newborns a thing of the past
By Raquel Miguel
When Carlos Herreros’ first daughter was born, he did not expect the occasion would trigger a mission to create a new technology aimed at improving infants’ security while in hospital.
The Spanish chairman of ICN Technologies set his firm the task of creating an identification and monitoring system for babies, after he returned to the hospital where his baby was born and found her wearing different clothes and with her identification band on a different leg.
“I felt overcome by a sensation of total defencelessness,” said Herreros. He has since been working on his gadget, which he considers infallible, for 11 years and says that cases of hospital negligence are far more common than is known.
“Hospitals and administrators keep those figures very tight,” said Herreros. A private study last year of a Spanish hospital found that out of 4,000 births in a year 24 infant identity errors occurred in barely six months.
“The question that comes to mind is: ‘How many went undetected?’” said Herreros.
Additionally, in numerous Latin American countries, infant thefts are common because of negligence in hospitals or for personal gain.
The consequences of child theft or mistakes leading to identity mix-ups are unacceptable, said Herreros: “That someone should impose on another person that he or she live a life that is not theirs is inadmissible and goes against every legal precept.”
There could also be serious medical considerations, for example, if the individual ever needed a transplant and there was no genetic compatibility with his or her parents.
Currently, children are protected in most hospitals through identification bracelets for mother and infant. But errors can happen. The bracelets carry handwritten or printed information, but it is easy for the mother’s data to be misplaced or become separated from that of the child. Hospital workers usually take ink fingerprints of infant and mother – but a baby’s prints are illegible at that age. Also, the bracelet can simply slip off.
The ICN system is novel in that it combines two technologies: biometrics and radio frequency. “The biometric function ensures an unequivocal and permanent identification of the newborn by taking high-resolution fingerprints. The radio frequency allows for monitoring, control and real time localisation of the baby, his or her mother, and the nurses taking care of them,” said Herreros.
The gadget uses an electronic reading device that takes fingerprints of a newborn and the infant’s biological mother in the birthing room. Hospital workers place an electronic bracelet on the mother and her child that contains that data. Fingerprint biometrics is a method already being used to identify adults, but this is the first time it has been applied to newborns. It is also the first time the two techniques are used conjointly.
“Radio frequency monitoring can be applied in any environment in which it is necessary to identify and monitor people and valuable objects,” Herreros said.
The ICN Technologies system includes an alarm that is activated should someone tear off the baby’s bracelet. The system locks hospital doors shut, blocks elevators and the entire hospital centre goes into alert.
Demand for the system is growing outside of Spain, especially in Latin America and the Gulf countries. Herreros said that in Latin America baby loss or theft is not always due to negligence or human error, but also because of economic interests and because some people are forced under financial duress to sell their own children.
Chile is even considering using the system to track mineworkers after the 2010 accident in which 33 miners were trapped for nearly 70 days before finally being rescued alive.
Herreros said that getting hospitals to install the baby security devices is not always easy. There are financial objections as well as psychological ones.
“It is hard to get them to understand that a reliable identification and control system for a newborn deserves the same attention and financial investment as a diagnostic device,” he said.
“A system like this one does not cure, but it avoids errors with grave consequences, such as the loss of a human being’s identity, sometimes for life.”