Injecting Design into Global Challenges


The World Design Impact Prize takes place every year to recognize industrial designs focused on building solutions to improve quality of life.  Among the 2013 finalists was the ABC Syringe, a syringe built to reduce spread of disease caused by contaminated needles.


Injections are one of the most common health care procedures in the world, and potentially the most dangerous. The WHO estimates that 40% of the 40 billion injections administered each year are delivered with unsterilized syringes resulting in 5% of all new HIV cases, 32% of Hepatitis B, and 40% of all Hepatitis C cases. Injections will continue to be a touchstone of sustaining health in the developing world; consequently, a high proportion of unsterilized needles will inevitably be used.

Health practitioners who accidentally use non-sterile syringes on patients account for a number of medical errors leading to the transmission of disease. Patients also commonly mistake a syringe as being sterile causing them to inadvertently infect themselves. Dr. David Swann and his team developed a revolutionary tool to combat this sort of disease spread. The patented technology of the ABC Syringe manages to circumvent these errors through a mechanism that displays on its surface whether it has been used.


So how exactly does it work? The ABC Syringe is designed with a simple, yet brilliant strategy: it changes color after its been used (more details here.) The simplicity reduces the risk for patients and practitioners alike. As a result, it will reduce morbidity and mortality. Those who resell syringes will also be incapable of gaining profit from the ABC Syringe.  The syringe conveys a message to both literate and illiterate populations effectively, and is cheap and easy to produce and scale.

So why hasn’t it been rolled out already? Well, besides being very new, challenges do of course exist including education of the syringe’s availability and its use. Costs are slightly higher than standard syringes, but are still cheaper than the auto-disposable syringe. Distribution to those who would benefit is vast, too, a number that is easily in the hundreds of millions. This will not deter future investment however, as the ABC Syringe shows a lot of promise. During the pilot phase, people on the streets of India validated its design strategy by demonstrating good understanding and uptake of the technology.

Other Possibilities

While the purpose of the ABC Syringe is presently curative, it might also become preventative for drug users. There is already focus on reducing disease through alleviating poverty, cleaning water, and other initiatives. Yet there still remains this phenomenon:  people continue to pursue maladaptive health behaviors despite knowing their ill effects.

In fact, UNODC and UNAID show that in 2010, up to 10 percent of global HIV infections are due to drug use, and when excluding Sub Saharan Africa, this number goes up to 30 percent. While HIV is mostly passed through sex in the developing world, it does not mean that its spread through drug use cannot still be mitigated. With the right framework, the ABC Syringe can directly target this behavior, and reduce the spread of HIV.

Immediate Impact

By reducing the spread of disease, ABC Syringe contributes to the UN Millennium Development Goals 4, 5 and 6 by empowering countries and enabling its citizens to become active safe-keepers of their health, and by extension, the health of others. Placing the power back in patients’ hands is a useful and grassroots level movement that is the first rung of the ladder to improving the health of a nation.

The ABC Syringe is another example of socially conscious industrial design with the potential to disrupt the predominance of standard disposable syringes for curative use, currently holding 95% of the market. Dr. Swann’s team’s impact is estimated to gain 5% of the Indian syringe market by year five, and the ABC Syringe will have prevented 701,750 fatal infections, saved 6.5 million life years and $130 million in medical costs.

Previous article5 Reasons You Should Become a Physician
Next articleInterview with Berci Mesko on the Future of Medicine and the Doctors 2.0 & You Event!
Originally from Canada, Manisha Sachdeva is a registered physiotherapist and Irish-based medical student. She works with marginalized populations, particularly refugees and the homeless community. Her latest research includes counseling on end-of-life wishes and integration of advance directives into medical record systems, as well as co-developing a preventive health care tool for an inner city electronic medical record system. She’s the founder of a student think tank and she's interested in the dimensions of social innovation in health care.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here