Ultrasound device reduces incidences of stillbirths in developing countries

With nearly 20 000 stillbirths documented in South Africa each year, a low-cost, locally developed innovative device has shown potential to reduce by 40% the perinatal mortality in developing countries.

The Umbiflow low-cost Doppler ultrasound device can detect foetuses considered to be below the growth curve at the primary point of care, referred to as “small for gestational age” (SGA), thereby greatly reducing the cases of mothers being referred for further medical interventions.

Doppler ultrasound equipment is a tool used worldwide to determine foetal health and the Umbiflow intends to increase its impact. Using ultrasound waves, it measures blood flow in the umbilical cord of unborn babies to determine if a foetus is SGA or sick. This usually occurs if the placenta is not providing enough blood flow to maintain the foetus on the standard growth curve.

In the public healthcare system, women usually only undergo blood flow measurement using ultrasound technology if a pregnancy is considered high risk, and then only through a referral to a secondary health care provider or specialist.

At the primary health care level foetuses are assessed regularly for SGA status using a tape measure measurement of the fundal height, measured from the pubic bone to the top of the uterus.

The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), Council for Scientific Research, and the department of science and technology (DST) funded the development of the device. It is also the result of a successful collaboration between the Gauteng, Western Cape, and National departments of health.

In a study conducted by SAMRC and the University of Pretoria’s Maternal and Infant Health Care Strategies Unit in Mamelodi, Pretoria, it was revealed that the device reduced the perinatal mortality rate in the study group by over 50% when compared to the control group.

“Currently, we are working to establish Umbiflow’s effectiveness in a clinic environment, following which we are looking to roll out the systems to the primary health care sector,” said the University of Pretoria’s Dr Spencer Nkosi, who conducted the device’s experimental work.

“Efforts are underway to expand the studies to other areas in South Africa as well as other low and middle-income countries,” added Nkosi.

Unlike conventional more expensive Doppler ultrasound equipment, the device does not require a specialist to operate it and interpret the results. Nursing sisters, midwives and general practitioners in mobile rural and low-resource primary health care settings can easily use it, thereby greatly reducing the cases of mothers being referred to secondary care level.

Conventional Doppler ultrasound units are beyond the reach of the majority of primary care facilities in the country, as only specialists can operate them. With a large rural or semi-rural population and large numbers of people living at low-income levels in South Africa, the device has the potential to make a significant impact on the healthcare system. The SAMRC and CSIR are seeking a commercialisation partner for the Umbiflow device.

It was one of the innovative solutions showcased by SAMRC at the Innovation Bridge showcase event held in mid-September at Gallagher estate — an initiative of the DST, aimed at enabling linkages and networking between South African and international innovators, industry, public and private technology development, and commercialisation funding partners.

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