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Doctor Wants to Wrap Afghan Babies

Northwestern doctor’s idea could prevent Afghan children from freezing to death

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February 17, 2012 | by Erin White

CHICAGO --- Thanks to the quick thinking of a Northwestern Medicine pediatrician, 14,000 silver mylar blankets, the kind typically handed out to runners after a marathon, are headed to Afghanistan to help children in danger of freezing to death this winter in scarcely heated refugee camps. More than 20 Afghan children have already died from the cold in the past month. 

Craig Garfield, M.D., well knows the value of the blankets, used by paramedics to warm newborn babies and by mountain climbers who camp overnight in frigid outdoor conditions. An athlete, Garfield also uses the blankets to maintain his body temperature after a triathlon.

He emailed his idea to a New York Times reporter on the scene in Afghanistan. The reporter, Rod Nordland, put him in touch with Aschiana Foundation U.S.A., which is focused on helping Afghan children in the refugee camps.

“The people at Aschiana thought the blankets made sense and were willing to try it,” Garfield said. “Within a matter of days, they told me that they had secured 14,000 blankets for about $10,000, and they are set to be shipped over on the next humanitarian aid mission to the camps.”

Garfield is an assistant professor in pediatrics and medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a pediatrician at Children’s Memorial Hospital and Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he often works with premature babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Prentice Women’s Hospital.

According to the New York Times article, in the past month almost two-dozen children in Afghan refugee camps, mostly babies, have died, many while sleeping next to their parents poorly insulated mud huts.

“As a father and a pediatrician, I couldn’t get the thought of those children dying from the cold out of my mind,” Garfield said. “As a researcher at Northwestern, my focus is on examining the role parents play in the health and well being of children. This was an example of the ultimate parental role, keeping children alive.”

The idea of using some sort of external material, such as plastic wrap, is something pediatricians do to keep premature babies warm in the moments after they are born, before they are put into an incubator, Garfield said. 

Garfield theorized that a parent could wrap himself and his child in a silver mylar blanket and secure the bottom shut to create a sleeping bag-like tube. The heat generated by the parent would stay within the tube and create a layer of warm air between the infant and the parent.

“With regular blankets layered over and under the silver mylar blanket, its very possible that this system could raise the temperature of a child enough to keep him warm overnight,” Garfield said. 

Garfield said he is hopeful that the blankets will arrive at the refugee camps soon and he’s optimistic that they’ll help the children in need. He is now working with his friends and family to raise money to reimburse the Aschiana Foundation for the cost of the blankets, in an effort named Operation Silver Lining.

“These blankets aren’t something the Aschiana Foundation would typically buy,” he said. “They just heard my recommendation and jumped on it. My friends and family and I want to help them recoup the cost and maybe even raise enough money to send more blankets. Who knows how long this bitter winter in Afghanistan will last? ”