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Sick and premature babies are cared for in the neonatal unit at Isaie Jeanty Maternity Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Sick and premature babies are cared for in the neonatal unit at Isaie Jeanty Maternity Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Ending infant mortality, one birth at a time Add to ...

The babies only look dead. About one in 10 babies born worldwide don’t breathe, don’t move, don’t cry. They aren’t dead, they just aren’t breathing.

But with a little intervention through an innovative suction device nicknamed “the Penguin,” most of the 10 million babies who need breathing help immediately after birth would survive.

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“Many of those babies that look stillborn will respond,” says Susan Niermeyer, a doctor at the University of Colorado and one of the driving forces behind the organization Helping Babies Breathe. As she cradles a latex infant – a tiny version of an adult dummy familiar to anyone who has learned rudimentary CPR – Dr. Niermeyer radiates the kind of driving passion this curious competition in Washington is seeking.

Deftly pointing the Penguin’s snout, she demonstrates a quick suction of clogged nostrils. “This is village triage and it works,” she says.

In a daring departure from traditional review and funding of developmental aid projects, a showcase of bold ideas currently on display in Washington is intended to kick start a range of innovative ideas – big and little, ranging from enlisting social media to spread best practices to using cellphones as remote medical monitors. It’s called "Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development,’’ and the process is as unconventional as some of the mostly untested ideas.

The clear plastic boilable Penguin is competing against dozens of other innovations in an unprecedented effort to bring technology, real-world difficulties and fresh ideas together in a competitive showcase for funding that sometimes resembles “Development Idol” or a venture-capital fair. The gathering of projects also includes a public online ballot – for the people’s choice award – as well as the project picked as most promising by other contestants.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will announce the winners on Thursday. The gathering of 77 finalists – to be further winnowed Thursday to between 15 and 20 that get funding – is intended to create a “pool of innovators.” It is jointly funded by Grand Challengers Canada, the United States Agency for International Development, Norway’s foreign minister, the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“We’re looking for the boldest ideas with the biggest impact in terms of saving lives,” says Peter Singer, chief executive office of Grand Challenges Canada, an independent not-for-profit organization that is intended to deliver a special tranche of $255-million in federal funding for innovative heath solutions over five years.

On Thursday, three or four of the 77 finalists will get major grants – roughly $2-million each – to transform their concepts into working trials in the developing world. Up to 20 others will get smaller “seed” grants to test the concepts.

For instance, there are solar-powered baby warmers, a fetal heart monitor powered by hand, and a ‘sanitary kit’ for traditional African midwives that coats knife-edges with nanoparticles. “Instead of boiling water and using firewood, you just leave the knife in the sunlight and the nanoparticles get sterilizingly hot,” says Benson Wamalwa, who teaches biochemistry at the University of Kenya. His booth, like dozens of others, attracted a steady stream of visitors.

Then there’s a $5 gizmo hooked up to an iPhone that provides a real-time display of a mother’s oxygen levels in the days before birth – a critical measure for accurately predicting pre-eclampsia, the leading cause of maternal mortality. “It’s a ‘Phone Oximeter,’” says Mark Ansermino, a scientist and associate professor at the University of British Columbia.

A steady stream of information, coloured graphs and predictive warnings dances on his iPhone screen. It might be measuring enthusiasm: “There an app for that,” he laughs, referring to the clever linkage between software and the tiny flashing LEDs that can measure hemoglobin levels. And if you don’t have an iPhone in rural Rwanda – where simple cellphones are ubiquitous even off the power grid – then it will work too, sending a set of audio tones detailing the results from the little rubber finger sleeve that measures the redness (hence the oxygen) in the blood.

Part of the effort is to build awareness about a key development goal that risks becoming stale from years of talking and too little progress: An estimated 150,000 mothers and 10 times more babies die annually in the developing world in the three days surrounding childbirth.

“It’s been so worthwhile to come here, regardless of whether I get funded,” says Michelle McIntosh, whose project aims at delivering a vital drug to staunch post-delivery bleeding as an inhalable powder – rather than the injectable serum used in Western hospitals where cold storage, disposable syringes and trained nurses are a commonplace.

“It’s the community-building past that is invaluable, there’s such a positive vibe and I’ve had approaches from other companies,” says Ms. McIntosh, a doctor at Monash University in Clayton, Australia. ``We trying to turn oxytocin into a powder, low-cost, needle-free and non-refrigerated,” she says. It could make a huge difference – one in three maternal deaths at childbirth is linked to hemorrhaging.

Competitors had only four pages to set out their ideas and were on a hurry-up track to deliver. The call for proposals only went out in March seeking “transformative ideas that have the potential to save the lives of mothers and newborns in rural settings around the time of birth.”

Nearly half of the proposals came from the developing world. The 77 finalists were all flown to Washington for the three-day showcase – roughly the cost of one extra ‘seed’ grant.

“It’s great to be here,” Mr. Wamalwa says. “It enriches the way you look at your own project, your own technology, you can see other perspectives.”

Follow on Twitter: @PaulKoring

 

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