Five Maternal Health Innovations That Could Save Lives

BY Talea Miller  August 1, 2011 at 12:48 PM EDT

Prenant woman in Mozambique. Photo by Talea Miller.

Every two minutes, somewhere around the world a woman dies in childbirth. Often, a lack of access to care, technology or medications causes these fatal complications.

In an effort to reduce deaths of both mothers and infants at birth, teams from across the globe are competing in an innovation challenge held by the U.S. State Department and funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.*

The field was narrowed from 77 finalists to 19 award nominees Friday at the Saving Lives at Birth conference. The remaining nominees will learn if they receive a cut of the $14 million research pot up for grabs by the end of 2011.

Check out five of the nominated innovations below and see a complete list here.

**Preventing low birth weight with chewing gum

Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas**

gum.PNGDid you know that gum disease in pregnant women is linked to preterm birth and low birth weight infants? Neither did we, but the team at Baylor College of Medicine has a possible solution straight off the grocery store shelves. Some chewing gums contain sugar alcohols, called polyols, that prevent gum disease, but to date they have not been utilized for this particular purpose.

The team hopes to roll out chewing gum or gummy snacks containing polyols to try to reduce early births in Malawi, and will evaluate the logistics of acceptability of this concept in the community.

**Stopping HIV transmission with a vacuum pack

Duke University from Durham, N.C.**

Antiretroviral drugs have helped cut HIV transmission from mother to child in developing countries and nearly eliminate it in the United States. In sub-Saharan Africa, some women have to travel great distances to obtain medical care and often give birth at home. Duke University developed a foil, polyethylene pouch — much like a fast-food ketchup pouch — that can store medicine for months so that ARVs can be administered as soon as a child is born, even if a health practitioner is not present. The pouch preserves the medication better than syringes or bottles.

**Mobile heart monitoring and data gathering

Save the Children Federation from Westport, Conn.**

A baby’s heart rate is the most important sign of distress during labor, but in many poor-resource settings, these warnings go unheard because of a lack of heart rate monitoring technology. Save the Children will test a combination of technologies in Uganda to cut these complications.

A mobile fetal heart rate monitor powered by human energy, which won a 2009 Index award, and a mobile phone based data gathering platform will be tested together to improve monitoring.

**An innovative alternative to forceps

The World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland**

Forceps and vacuum extractors are used during delivery when labor is not progressing normally and there are signs the baby is in distress. The WHO proposed testing the experimental Odon Device in South Africa and Argentina. The devices is a film-like polyethylene material that looks like an open plastic bag wrapped around the head of the baby, sealed and used to help extraction during complications.

WHO says Odon could be safer and easier than forceps, and would require less training. It could even be a possible alternative to caesarean sections in settings without trained surgeons.

**Diagnosing with paper stamps

Diagnostics for All, Inc. from Cambridge, Mass.**

In the rural communities of low-income countries, cheap and portable diagnostic equipment is desperately needed for many health problems. Diagnostics for All will create two postage stamp-sized paper tools that can detect anemia and hypoglycemia and hypertensive disorders, all indicators of high-risk pregnancy.

The stamps would provide quick diagnosis, on location, allowing recommendations to be put in place immediately as opposed to requiring a follow up for results.

*For the record, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a NewsHour underwriter.