Saving lives at birth through innovation

Cape Town | Recent research has found that a locally-developed innovative device, called UmbiFlow, has the potential to significantly reduce the incidence of stillbirths in developing countries.

The device was developed by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) in collaboration with the Council for Scientific Research (CSIR). The study to test the device was conducted by the SAMRC-University of Pretoria’s Maternal and Infant Health Care Strategies Unit in Mamelodi, South Africa.

The Umbiflow device essentially measures blood flow in the umbilical cord of unborn babies so as to assess placental function. In the study, it was found that 1 in 10 pregnant women between seven and eight months, who displayed no signs or symptoms of illness had abnormal UmbiFlow readings, indicating potential abnormalities in placental function. Of the 1 in 10 women in which potential placental function abnormalities were detected, 1 in 10 had absent end diastolic flow (AEDF), a severe abnormality of the placenta that can lead to the death of the baby if not attended to.

“Currently, only pregnant mothers that are considered “high risk” or present signs of slow foetal growth are referred by clinics to secondary care, ” says Professor Rob Pattinson,  Unit Director at the SAMRC-University of Pretoria  Maternal and Infant Health Care Strategies Research Unit. “It is at the secondary care level where Intrauterine Growth Restriction can be confirmed or excluded through the use of Doppler technology, and mothers are offered appropriate care to reduce the risk of still birth.”

 In South Africa, unexplained stillbirth is the largest category of perinatal death. Intrauterine Growth Restriction is associated with 33% of unexplained stillbirth and the majority (80%) of these mothers are considered clinically normal and therefore not referred to secondary care.

“The study is impressive in that it looked at women who, by currently used methods, would be considered clinically normal, but by using this method we were able to identify that they were not, “adds Professor Pattinson.  “This ultimately means that this simple hand held device is saving babies’ lives.”

The results of the research indicate that the prevalence of placental function abnormalities could be ten times higher in developing countries than in high-income countries.  The research will now be expanded to other areas of South Africa to determine whether the prevalence of placental function abnormalities is similar and whether the demonstrated reduction in peri-natal mortality as a result of routine screening with UmbiFlow can be replicated. If successful, the technology could be rolled out as an inventive, yet simple way to screen pregnant women to identify babies who are at risk of stillbirth.

The project was funded by the South African Medical Research Council, The CSIR, and the Department of Science and Technology through its Health Innovation Directorate, and is a result of a successful collaboration with the Gauteng, Western Cape, and National Departments of Health.


Release date: 
Thursday, November 17, 2016 - 11:50
Keletso Ratsela
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