A Cost-Effective Way to Save Mothers’ Lives

Each year, maternal mortality is responsible for 530,000 deaths worldwide, the majority of which are caused by obstetric hemorrhage. In 2003, Dr. Suellen Miller, a professor at the University of California San Francisco and the director of UCSF’s Safe Motherhood Project, and a team of researchers decided to do something about this problem. Together, they came up with LifeWrap (generically known as the non-pneumatic anti-shock garment), a simple device that acts as a full-body tourniquet to stop bleeding in new mothers suffering from obstetric hemorrhage. With its low-cost, high-impact design, the LifeWrap device has great potential to improve maternal health in developing nations.

The LifeWrap itself is made of neoprene, fastened with Velcro, and is wrapped around a patient’s legs and torso in order to squeeze oxygenated blood back into the heart, lungs and brain. After basic training, any medical practitioner can use the LifeWrap technology to treat patients when needed. Importantly, the LifeWrap can be transferred from one patient to the next with minimal transition time. Dr. Miller’s team began conducting randomized clinical trials in 2007 in 3 sites across Zambia and Zimbabwe. The team hopes to be finished in the next two years in order to organize its findings and present the data to the World Health Organization.

Priced at $295, the LifeWrap serves as a low-cost life-saving device capable of serving both developed and developing nations. Early non-random trials and results from Egypt and Nigeria suggest that the device can cut blood loss from obstetric hemorrhage in half, and most importantly, it has reduced the rate of maternal death by 40 to 60 percent. Already, the LifeWrap is being use in several countries, including India, Bangladesh, Tanzania and Peru, and the LifeWrap team reports that over 6,000 mothers have benefited from the technology.

While the LifeWrap can help stop hemorrhaging, it is not a complete treatment in and of itself. Rather, the LifeWrap is designed to buy time for emergency treatment. One of the biggest barriers to effective treatment of obstetric hemorrhages in developing nations is the long delay between the occurrence of hemorrhage and the delivery of treatment—a delay that often proves fatal. The LifeWrap allows physicians to control bleeding before transporting the mother from a home birth or primary care location to a clinic.

The LifeWrap may have vast potential to save lives in developing countries that not only have high maternal death rates, but also lack access to advanced health technology and proper medical care. Following features with the New York Times and ABC, the LifeWrap has already received high-profile attention and sponsorship from groups like Pathfinder International, a global sexual and reproductive health-focused organization. In the next few years, Dr. Miller and her research team will complete clinical trials and begin working towards bringing the LifeWrap to more countries and more people, thereby working to lower maternal mortality rates worldwide.