PATH uses ingenuity and collaboration to make pregnancy and childbirth safer for moms and babies. Photo: PATH/Georgina Goodwin.
Turning everyday objects into lifesavers for moms and newborns
Everlyne Nyasuguta Aben checks two of the most important boxes for risk of serious complications or even death from pregnancy and childbirth: she is poor and lives in a rural area in Kenya where health services are difficult to access. Even if she can get to the nearest health center or hospital, there’s no guarantee it will have the medical equipment necessary to save her life, or even reliable power.
The same factors pose an even greater risk for Everlyne’s baby, who will be vulnerable to infections and other dangers.
There is no such thing as “routine” pregnancy or childbirth in places like this, where a complication during pregnancy, an emergency at birth, or an infection at the start of life too often spirals into tragedy. Every year, 300,000 women and 2.7 million newborns die during the brief window between the start of pregnancy and the end of a baby’s first month.
“It’s really quite amazing that a product as simple as this can save hundreds of thousands of newborns every year.”
PATH uses a special mix of ingenuity, perseverance, and partnership to prevent these unnecessary maternal and newborn deaths—with projects that range from developing devices, drugs, and vaccines to improving health systems.
We specialize in adapting existing technologies and creating new ones specifically for low-resource settings. Our inspiration comes from health workers we meet in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere who improvise ingenious solutions to keep their patients alive. We partner with health care providers to design affordable, reliable devices designed to save the lives of mothers and babies in their communities.
One of these tools saved Everlyne’s life when she began bleeding severely after the birth of her son, Ernesto.
Stopping severe bleeding with a balloon
Every year, 115,000 women die from the type of postpartum hemorrhage Everlyne experienced—99 percent of them are in low-resource settings, where health workers rarely have an effective way to stop severe bleeding.
This simple uterine balloon tamponade kit stops postpartum bleeding by applying pressure with a water-filled “balloon.” Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.
Fortunately, Everlyne was transported to Nyamira County Hospital, where a PATH-supported maternal health program had recently trained staff members to use a uterine balloon tamponade (UBT). This device—common in wealthy countries—stops bleeding by applying pressure to the uterine walls via a “balloon” inserted into the uterus and filled with water.
The UBT that saved Everlyne’s life was assembled from a simple, low-cost kit that uses items found in most clinics, including a condom, a syringe, and rubber tubing. PATH has played a key role in supporting introduction of the kit, training nurses and midwives to use the device safely, and accelerating its use in rural communities.
When health workers told us they wanted a preassembled UBT to save time in emergencies, we partnered with a South African manufacturer, Sinapi Biomedical, to develop one. The ready-to-use Sinapi UBT is affordable, effective, and poised to save hundreds of thousands of lives.
Repurposing a mouthwash ingredient to save newborns
Perils exist from the first moment of a baby’s life, when the simple act of cutting the umbilical cord can create an entry point for deadly bacteria.
Today, parents and birth attendants in remote communities around the world are using an inexpensive antiseptic called chlorhexidine on babies’ umbilical cords to stop infections before they start. Chlorhexidine has been used in mouthwashes and surgical washes since the 1950s, but the innovative use of a stronger concentration of chlorhexidine to stop infections in newborns is fairly new—and PATH played a crucial role.
We worked with manufacturers in Africa and Asia to increase local supplies of this lifesaving product. And we continue to lead an international consortium that is accelerating introduction and scale-up of chlorhexidine around the globe to save the lives of more than 1 million newborns by 2030.
“At less than US$0.50 per dose, few interventions show as much promise to rapidly reduce newborn deaths at such an affordable cost,” says Patricia Coffey, who leads PATH’s health technologies work for women and children. “It’s really quite amazing that a product as simple as this can save hundreds of thousands of newborns every year.”
Supporting fragile lungs with a water bottle
Babies born before their lungs finish developing often struggle to breathe, panting in a helpless effort to take in enough oxygen. It’s called respiratory distress syndrome, and without treatment it’s almost always fatal.
PATH developed a safe and affordable device that gently pushes a mixture of oxygen and air into a premature baby’s lungs. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.
A device that gently pushes a mixture of oxygen and air into a premature baby’s lungs—a therapy called continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP—can carry a newborn through until she can breathe on her own.
But CPAP devices are expensive, require electricity, and are often unavailable in low-resource settings. Instead, resourceful health care providers use tubes, tape, plastic bottles, and other materials at hand to cobble together improvised CPAP devices. While these devices save lives, they also deliver only oxygen to babies’ lungs—which can cause blindness and brain damage.
With input from partners around the globe, PATH is developing a safer, less expensive device—called a bubble CPAP kit—that doesn’t need electricity. Our kit uses inexpensive tubing, a water bottle, and a few other components. Most importantly, it incorporates a simple but ingenious air blender—created on a 3D printer in our product development shop—that draws room air into babies’ lungs along with the oxygen.
If we can make our kit widely accessible, PATH’s bubble CPAP kit has the potential to save thousands of babies every year in the world’s hardest-to-reach places.