Life-Saving Devices for Pregnant Women

Innovations that can help detect disease and prevent death

8 August 2014

Without access to medical technologies, childbirth can be deadly. Some 287,000 women worldwide die due to complications from pregnancy each year, and 20 times that number are injured or contract an infection, according to the World Health Organization. For many pregnant women, such tragedies could be avoided with devices such as a mobile phone used as a diagnostic tool, a relatively low-cost portable ultrasound machine, or a solar headlamp.

Engineering for Change—a program founded by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Engineers Without Borders-USA, and IEEE that tries to get engineers involved in humanitarian causes—held an hour-long “Innovations in Global Maternal Health” webinar in May to bring attention to several useful products on the market for pregnant women. The speaker was Meg Wirth, cofounder of Maternova, a company that searches for the best products being made for maternal health and helps distribute them to developing regions of the world. Many of the devices save women from major causes of death during childbirth, including excessive bleeding as well as eclampsia, a disorder characterized by high blood pressure and seizures.

 “Technology is not a perfect solution, but it can help better detect and monitor risks associated with childbirth, and it buys women time in an emergency,” Wirth says. “They still need to get to a facility to receive skilled care, which in some areas are hours and even days away.”

Saving lives

Maternova has been examining products for safeguarding maternal health during childbearing and delivery. Some of them are already being used in developing regions but might not be well known elsewhere. In addition, Maternova searches for such products being developed by universities and companies around the world. Currently the 5-year-old company distributes 40 devices that it sells to humanitarian organizations, hospitals, clinics, and medical-supply distributors.

Maternova considers only devices approved by regulatory authorities such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or those whose efficacy has been demonstrated with research published in peer-reviewed journals. Maternova then runs its own tests, relying on a cadre of scientific advisors and medical professionals. The company also organizes online seminars and customer support sessions to help train health professionals on how to use them.

uChek The Biosense Technologies’ uChek kit includes urine test strips and a phone preloaded with an app, which examines the color changes on the strip and from that can identify up to 25 markers of disease. Photo: Maternova

One new product Maternova is testing is the Biosense Technologies’ uChek, a mobile app for an Android phone able to analyze information from a photo of a urine test strip. The app examines the color changes on the strip and from that can identify up to 25 markers, including several indicative of eclampsia. The results can show how high the risk is of getting the disease, and the app can track its progress over time. Uchek will be tested in facilities caring for pregnant women in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, Wirth says, to determine whether midwives can learn to use it to detect disease. Biosense is a company in Thane West, India. Its kit includes the phone preloaded with the app and test strips.

The battery-powered Signos-RT, used to determine fetal health, is distributed by Maternova. A display about the size of a smartphone is connected by cable to an ultrasonic transducer. At about 400 grams, the display is the lightest ultrasound machine on the market. Its images can monitor the health of a fetus as well as of the mother, and it can detect risky conditions that might occur in childbirth. An internal central processing unit analyzes signals from the transducer to form the images on the display. The unit includes a 4-gigabyte microSD card, which can store about 10,000 high-resolution images that can be uploaded to a computer for further analysis.

The machine, made by Signostics of Clovelly Park, Australia, sells for about US $6,500. It is often purchased by humanitarian organizations for delivery to remote clinics and hospitals.


NASG The Non-Pneumatic Anti-Shock Garment presses on the uterus to stop bleeding and the shock caused by blood loss. Photo: Maternova

One of the most successful products Maternova distributes is a pressure suit used to stem maternal bleeding occurring after delivery. The Non-Pneumatic Anti-Shock Garment (NASG) is wrapped around the woman from the waist down and around each leg. The suit presses on the uterus to stop bleeding and the shock caused by blood loss.

“It’s a funny-looking blue wetsuit, but it’s the closest we have to giving a woman a transfusion using her own blood before she can reach a hospital,” Wirth says. It has been commercially available at an affordable price since early 2013, and has helped save tens of thousands of lives. They sell for about $75, and typically may be used up to 70 times.

After Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in November, the suit was employed at a temporary midwifery clinic set up in Tacloban by the humanitarian group Mercy in Action to treat women with postpartum hemorrhage. The group purchased NASGs and taught local health professionals how to use them.

A simple innovation—a solar-powered headlamp—could be one of the most useful tools for midwives in areas where electricity is irregular or lacking altogether. The lamp, which can be attached to a headband or visor, costs $17 and provides 12 hours of use per 12-hour charge. Photovoltaic panels attached to the lamp charge a battery, which lights its LEDs. The lamp can provide an output of 20 lumens—not very bright but serviceable.


“There are many effective, low-cost technologies out there,” Wirth says, “but they may be used in just one small part of the world. The knowledge that they even exist is not readily available.”

To inform the public about its products, Maternova is using social media, contacting local clinics and medical distributors around the world, and tapping into enterprises that distribute products locally. The company also is telling people about the technologies through interviews with media outlets and speaking on webinars, including the one hosted by Engineering For Change. The webinar is available as a recording for those who did not watch it live.

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