Canadians Are Doing Very Cool Shit to Save the Lives of Moms and Babies Around the World

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Photo via Flickr user gchallenges.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s three-day global summit on maternal and newborn health, which kicked off yesterday in Toronto, is bringing together major players in the field of international development—from the Aga Khan to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon—to figure out how to save more mothers, babies, and children in poor countries.

Seems like an admirable goal, but it’s received a ton of criticism from United Nations officials, journalists, non-governmental organizations, politicians, and think-tanks. They say the funds aren’t transparent, that Harper doesn’t truly care about maternal health, and that his policy is flawed because it doesn’t include access to safe abortions. This isn’t surprising given the Harper government’s refusal to launch an inquiry into the 1,181 missing and murdered aboriginal women within Canada itself.

Still, the situation is an undeniable mess. Each day that goes by, 800 women die from preventable complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.

One thing that folks might be able to agree on, however, is that Canadians are coming up with amazing technologies and ideas to save the lives of mothers and babies around the world.

Even though Harper ended up banning journalists from most of the summit yesterday, we snagged a few interviews with some very impressive Canadians, some of whom showcased their work to global leaders yesterday.

They’ve all gotten funding from Grand Challenges Canada, a government project started in 2008 to find innovative ways to prevent and treat pregnant women and children in poor and isolated communities.

Here’s a sampler of their up-and-coming projects, some of which you can check out this afternoon between 3-5 p.m. at a showcase at Dundas Square downtown Toronto.

An HIV self-test platform

Imagine a world in which someone at risk could test themselves for HIV anywhere they wanted—in their office, at home, on the road… Well, Dr. Nikki Pai from McGill University has designed an online and mobile app that helps South Africans do exactly that.

With 5.6 million people living with HIV/AIDS in 2011, South Africa has the highest number of people with HIV/AIDS in the world. Even so, many locals who might have it don’t get HIV tests. They stay away because they’re scared of stigma and discrimination, Dr. Pai explained. They also don’t like waiting hours in line.

But now, people at risk don’t have to wait in public for a test. Using Dr. Pai’s app, they can find out how use self-test kits for HIV, including ones that detect HIV on saliva, how to interpret the results, and where to get local treatment.

“It gives them convenience and portability,” she explained. When her team tested the project in South Africa each person who self-tested positive for HIV was connected to a treatment option within 48 hours.

“And the upside about offering it to pregnant women or women with reproductive potential is that you save two lives,” she said.

The fish that stops anemia

“Lucky Iron Fish,” a tiny metal fish designed by University of Guelph researchers, is Cambodia’s latest lucky charm. Designed to fight iron deficiency in Cambodia, where six in 10 women are anemic, the $5 fish-shaped piece of iron is placed in a pot when cooking meals. It provides 75 percent of a person’s daily iron requirement for a lifespan of three years.

As it releases iron into every meal, it saves lives. Anemia—caused by a lack of iron in the blood—can lead to premature births, hemorrhaging during childbirth, and slow brain development in babies.

Gavin Armstrong, PhD candidate and project leader, told us they originally tried a plain iron disc, but people didn’t care for it.

“It didn’t make any sense, culturally. We discovered that the shape of a fish was a symbol of luck and prosperity in Cambodia. And people thought it would bring their family luck if they used it… people started feeling healthier, and they attributed that to the luck of the fish.”

In the test areas, anemia has pretty much disappeared.

Photo via Flickr user gchallenges.
The hand-powered heart monitor

Monitoring a baby’s heartbeat while it’s still inside its mom is pretty important. A wonky beat is a warning sign that something is wrong. In poor countries, there aren’t many ways to do this effectively.

Community health workers in Uganda have been relying on a pinard, a type of wooden tube used to listen to the baby’s heartbeat by placing one end on the mother’s stomach and the other at the listener’s ear. Since it requires a lot of skill, workers miss opportunities to save lives because they don’t catch abnormal heartbeats.

Until now, the only alternatives have been impractical, electricity-hungry machines that cost thousands of dollars, and are difficult to repair when they break down. That’s where Diego Bassani, a scientist at SickKids Toronto, comes in.

Bassani just finished testing out a hand-powered fetal heart monitor on 2,000 women in Uganda. One minute of winding a wheel gives the monitor 10 minutes of power. And it’s six times better at catching abnormalities than a Pinard. That equals more lives saved. He hopes it will save many of the 1.2 million babies who die each year in “fresh stillbirths”—deaths caused by problems during delivery.

Baby delivery in a box

Over the last 10 to 15 years, the world has made big progress in reducing childhood deaths. But the deaths of newborns, more than 3 million of whom die every year, hasn’t gone down.

Many of these lives could be saved if mothers in poor, rural areas with limited healthcare could access basic tools that would help them prevent infections and hypothermia in their newborns during the first few weeks of life.

And everything they need could come in a small box at a price tag of less than $5, said Dr. Shaun Morris from SickKids. He’s designed a clean delivery kit he believes could save as many as half the babies in poor, remote areas. It’s going to be tested in Pakistan and Kenya.

It includes a clean plastic mat, sterile umbilical cord clamps and a blade to cut the umbilical cord so that the mother doesn’t have to use stones and other unsterile objects around the house. Chlorahexadine (an antiseptic) and sunflower oil help protect the baby’s skin and keep it infection-free; a thermostat sticker for the mother keeps track of the baby’s temperature and catches early signs of hypothermia or fever; and a mylar blanket and non-electric heater keep the baby warm.

Most important of all, it’s easy to use.

“You don’t have to get the baby to the hospital. The mum can do it herself,” Morris said.

An app for measuring blood oxygen

You probably haven’t considered measuring your blood oxygen levels, but if you want to, there’s an app for that. Vancouver-based social enterprise, LionsGate Technologies, has received a $1-million Grand Challenges grant to scale up the Phone Oximeter, their mobile app that can indicate when a pregnant woman is at risk of complications from high blood pressure, known as preeclampsia.

The Phone Oximeter connects the audio port in a cell phone, laptop, or tablet to a low-cost sensor that shines a light through the mother’s finger, revealing blood colour. The redder the better because the redder it is, the more oxygen there is.

It can also measure low oxygen levels in patients with pneumonia, which kills more than one million children a year. The team is about to study how well the app works in India, Pakistan, Mozambique, and Nigeria.

But innovation isn’t all about success. We spoke to Peter Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada, who said many great ideas don’t work out when they’re tested on the ground: “Failure is an inevitable part of innovation. Our job is to fail as quickly and cheaply as possible,” he said.

Taking risks is necessary to find the best affordable innovations that can save and improve lives, he explained, adding that Canada has taken a lead on the issue by being the first country to have a national program of its kind.

“If you just look at the numbers of women and children dying, it’s like 12,000 jumbo jets crashing every year. That’s obviously an intolerable situation,” he said. “Most of those jets we can help to land safely—that’s what Canada is doing.”


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