In many parts of the world, pregnancy and childbirth are the single greatest risks to a woman’s health. Giving birth is still the leading cause of death among young women in poor nations, who are still dying from preventable medical complications like bleeding, infections, and obstructed labor. An estimated 800 women die in childbirth every single day, and 3 million babies needlessly die within their first four weeks of life because they lack access to medical care.
Often, a relatively simple solution can help keep women and their babies alive. Here are five innovative advances in women’s reproductive health that are making a difference in countries around the world:
1. A gel that can stop babies from dying of umbilical cord infections.
In Nepal, a so-called “miracle gel” is saving babies from umbilical cord infections, one of the leading causes of infant mortality in the Himalayan country. Women often face barriers to safe medical care in Nepal, and a traditional paste that’s applied to the newborn after birth can raise the risk of infections. So the government agreed to pilot a program to expand the use of an umbilical gel to prevent infections. In the first trials to test the new medication, USAID found that applying a single dose of this gel to infants’ umbilical cord stumps reduced infant mortality in the country by a staggering 34 percent. Now, the international agency is working to expand the project to Madagascar and Nigeria.
2. A condom that can prevent deadly postpartum bleeding.
Up to 18 percent of all pregnancies result in excessive bleeding after birth — and in the developing world, new mothers often die from this postpartum bleeding. But a team at Massachusetts General Hospital is trying to prevent those deaths with a simple first aid kit that includes a catheter, a condom, and water. Health workers can follow the kit’s simple instructions to effectively use it: they need to insert the condom into the uterus and slowly inflate it with water, which will press against the bleeding uterine wall and prevent hemorrhaging. In an early trial conducted in Kenya, every single woman who experienced heavy bleeding ended up surviving with the help of the condom, which is a lot cheaper and easier to get than the specialized uterine balloon that’s typically used for this purpose. Kenya’s health officials now plan to put a kit in each of the country’s 6,500 health centers.
3. A cheaper sanitary pad that can reduce infections.
In India, just 12 percent of women use sanitary pads, largely because they’re too expensive. Particularly in rural areas, women opt for unsanitary options — like sand, sawdust, leaves, and ash — because they’re too embarrassed to publicly wash and dry cloths after they’ve been used for menstruation. Health experts say that’s contributing to reproductive diseases, maternal mortality, and even cervical cancer. So one man, Arunachalam Muruganantham, set out to design a cheaper sanitary pad to save women’s lives. He eventually won a national award for his innovation, spread his project to more than a thousand Indian women, and starting employing local women to come up with their own sanitary pad designs. Muruganantham plans to expand his project to more than 100 other countries around the world, including Kenya, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.
4. A plastic bag that can help save babies from getting stuck in the birth canal.
A car mechanic from Argentina invented a simple device that can help ease complicated deliveries, which contribute to 26,000 maternal deaths around the world every year. Jorge Odón says he was inspired by the method to remove a cork from a wine bottle. His device helps remove a baby’s head from the birth canal in a similar way — a plastic bag inside a lubricated plastic sleeve grips the baby’s head, inflates, and allows a health worker to pull the bag and guide the baby through. It’s an effective alternative to the current methods of dealing with an obstructed birth, which can end up killing mothers and babies by leading to fatal hemorrhaging or accidentally crushing babies’ heads and spines. Odón’s prototype is currently undergoing vigorous testing. It’s already won praise from the World Health Organization, and it could be in clinical use within the next several years.
5. A portable solar energy source that allows doctors to deliver babies safely.
It’s not just a lack of medical instruments that can prevent health workers from saving a woman’s life in childbirth. In many parts of Africa, woman are dying in the dark because medics don’t always have an adequate source of light and are sometimes forced to wait until the morning. About 300,000 health clinics worldwide don’t have reliable electricity and can’t always treat women in the middle of the night. One physician who witnessed this dynamic on a research trip in Nigeria decided she wanted to do something about it. Dr. Laura Stachel developed a “solar power suitcase” to provide a portable source of a light for health clinics, and eventually founded a nonprofit to further the mission.
“I really want a world where women can deliver safely and with dignity, and women don’t have to fear an event that we consider a joy in this country. To see birth associated with death and fear is an outrage,” Stachel, who is a practicing OB-GYN, explained to CNN. “I knew women were dying at high rates. I just didn’t know they were run-of-the-mill things we can take care of.”