Saving Lives at Birth

Digital-DiversityEvery two minutes a woman dies in childbirth. In sub-Saharan Africa, women are 136 times more likely to die than in developed countries. In this latest issue of Digital Diversity, we look at how an annual challenge is helping turn the attention of the world’s smartest innovators to solving one of the world’s greatest problems – saving lives at birth.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from featuring the many ways mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was written by Layla McCay, a member of our Media and Research Team.

By Layla McCay

Patricia Hibberd from Massachusetts General Hospital picks up a heat sensor device she bought from a local hardware store. Instead of pointing it at a building to identify where heat is escaping, its intended use, she points it at some of the people milling around her stand at the Saving Lives at Birth DevelopmentxChange event recently held in Washington, DC. The little screen lights up in multicolours. “We can use this device to diagnose pneumonia in children,” she tells me.

Heat sensor pointed at people attending the Saving Lives at Birth event. (Photo: Layla McCay)

This is intriguing. Pneumonia is usually diagnosed with x-rays, and other diagnostic tests that can be expensive and require special equipment. In many developing countries, these tests are only available in specialist hospitals, and are out of reach to most of the population – a particular problem as pneumonia is one of the biggest causes of death for children under five.

It is just the sort of inventive solution to a global health challenge that is embraced by Saving Lives at Birth. Launched in 2011, this partnership and has put out an annual, global call for innovators to identify groundbreaking prevention and treatment approaches for pregnant women and newborns in poor, hard-to-reach communities. The partnership is an illustrious one: USAID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Government of Norway, Grand Challenges Canada, and the UK Department for International Development provide seed funds and transition grants to move bright ideas from a twinkle in their innovator’s eye to practical use in healthcare facilities in low income countries. This is its final year. After thousands of hopefuls submitted their applications, they were whittled down to 52 finalists, who gathered in the Ronald Reagan building late last month to compete for the funds.

Digital solutions play an exciting role in some of the most inspiring innovations presented – and a big theme of the day was coming up with affordable versions of expensive, often unattainable medical devices, so they can be used to save lives in low-income settings, and a particularly popular target this year was how to help babies with breathing problems.

Often when newborn babies are in breathing distress, they require help from a machine called bubble Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (bCPAP). This machine is far too expensive for many hospitals in low income settings. Luckily several of the innovators focused on how to make the treatment more affordable. William Marshall Rice University in Houston, TX and PATH both came up with inventions that do the job while cutting the cost by up to fifteen times. William Marshall Rice University also came up with an exciting $25 stretchy band that is placed around babies’ chests and detects if the baby stops breathing – and automatically delivers a vibration that stimulates the baby to start breathing again. The inventors believe that this device could save the lives, and prevent damage caused by stopping breathing, of 2.9 million babies a year. All of these inventions seek investment for further development, to prove their worth, and to get them to the places they are needed most.

Low-cost bCPAP machine being showcased at Saving Lives at Birth. (Photo: Layla McCay)

Mobile phones, which are rapidly spreading throughout the world, provided particular inspiration for the Saving Lives at Birth innovators. The Inclen Trust International from India plan to develop a mobile health (mHealth) device to monitor mothers and fetuses in later pregnancy and during labour, to detect any problems. This usually requires an expensive piece of equipment called a cardiotocograph device, but the Inclen Trust plan to develop a far cheaper version that works though a mobile phone. SimPrints Technology Ltd proposed to use fingerprint technology that integrates with mHealth apps to help solve the challenge of accurate patient identification of mother and baby around the time of birth.

Mobile phone technology is also being harnessed by Massachusetts General Hospital with their heat detector to diagnose pneumonia. Hibbert explained to me that the device she bought at the hardware store works, but it is too expensive for many of the healthcare settings who need it most. Instead, her team have invented a little clip-on attachment that turns any smartphone into a heat sensor. Point it at babies’ and young children’s chests, and sure enough, the thermal images that pop up on the smartphone screen correspond to the x-ray patterns that diagnose pneumonia.

Chest x-ray and thermal imaging both detecting the same pneumonia. (Photo: Linda Wang and Patricia L Hibberd at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston)
Chest x-ray and thermal imaging both detecting the same pneumonia. (Photo: Linda Wang and Patricia L Hibberd at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston)

Ideas like the ones presented at Saving Lives At Birth are game changers for healthcare in poor, hard-to-reach communities. It is exciting to see so many of these ideas being funded and moving from good idea to a better reality.

Layla McCayLayla McCay is a medical doctor and global health specialist, with a special interest in global health technology and innovation. She has worked across health policy sectors, from the World Health Organization and the World Bank to International NGOs and the British Government. She teaches international health at Georgetown University. You can find her on Twitter @LaylaMcCay

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in Digital Diversity about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.