77 innovations for moms and babies

If you ask for ideas about improving the health of mothers and newborns in remote areas of the globe, they will come.

Back in March, a partnership consisting of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Norwegian government, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada and the World Bank issued a global call for novel ways to reduce maternal and infant mortality in rural areas of the world where access to health care is scant.

The project is known as Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development. Ideas that were submitted had to address one or more of three key areas: technology, service delivery and/or demand.

The results are now in: 600 innovative proposals from around the world. After much deliberation, they have been narrowed to 77 finalists whose ideas will be reviewed next week at a development exchange in Washington, D.C. During this three-day open marketplace, innovators will have the chance to share and discuss their ideas with development experts, fellow innovators and potential funders. Final awards will be announced during a ceremony on Thursday, July 28.

The list of the 77 finalist projects is varied, creative and global. For example, a Seattle-based organization known as the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, or PATH, has proposed a low-cost, lightweight, solar-powered infant warmer to care for very small newborns at risk of hypothermia.

Changamka Microhealth Ltd. of Nairobi, Kenya, has put together a proposal that addresses the financial and information barriers faced by poor rural women. It involves a system of prepaid e-vouchers and transportation subsidies delivered via mobile phone, along with information through SMS messaging, participatory networks and radio.

Other novel ideas address low-cost and rapid ways of diagnosing and treating conditions among mothers and newborns such as infection, jaundice and blood loss.

Citizens of developed nations are accustomed to thinking of childbirth as a happy occasion for welcoming a healthy new infant into the world. Globally, however, pregnancy, delivery and and the first few days of life are often an extremely fragile time with less than positive outcomes.

The Saving Lives at Birth website contains some sobering information. Globally, a woman dies in childbirth every two minutes. Women in sub-Saharan Africa are 136 times more likely to die in childbirth than women in developed countries.

The most vulnerable time starts with the onset of labor and doesn’t begin to ease until 48 hours after birth. During these critical hours, there are an estimated 150,000 maternal deaths, 1.6 million newborn deaths and 1.2 million stillbirths each year. The medical threats range from hemorrhage and obstructed labor in the mother to infection, birth asphyxia and complications of pre-term birth among infants.

The majority of deaths occur in low- and mid-income nations, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where women often lack access to health care services and information. In many of these remote rural areas, even things taken for granted such as clean water, electricity and transportation may be in short supply or absent altogether.

There in fact are many barriers to healthy birth outcomes in rural areas of the developing world: lack of medical technology, a shortage of trained, equipped and motivated health care professionals, and a lack of information among mothers-to-be about the benefits of prenatal care and what they can do to increase the likelihood of a healthy pregnancy and delivery.

When the challenge is this huge, can a handful of individual projects make a difference? The Saving Lives at Birth project seems to be one way to find the answer to this question.

For more global stories about the power of small-scale projects to achieve results, check out these videos posted online by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. You can also vote here for your favorite innovative idea submitted to the Saving Lives at Birth challenge. The winner of the People’s Choice award will be announced Thursday, July 28. The public has until 5 p.m. EST Wednesday, July 27, to cast online votes.

Update: Nineteen nominees were selected Thursday for seed grants. The winners’ list is here. They will now enter final negotiations before the grant money is awarded in 2012. The winner of the People’s Choice award is the University of California-San Francisco, Bixby Center and ARMMAN collaboration team for a project utilizing voice messaging and animation. Monash University of Australia won the Peer Choice award for proposing an innovative way of administering oxytocin without needles or the need for refrigeration.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


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