The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the Centre for Scientific Industrial Research (CSIR) have developed a simple hand held device that uses ultrasound waves to assess blood flow in the umbilical cord of unborn babies, called the UmbiFlow apparatus.

The tool, which makes it possible to assess the function of the placenta and the growth of the baby in the mother’s womb, was one of five innovative solutions showcased by the National Department of Health (NDoH) to mark World Prematurity Day yesterday – an initiative aimed at reducing premature births and child mortality.

UmbiFlow uses ultrasound waves to measure blood flow in the umbilical cord to determine if a foetus is small for gestational age (SGA), which usually occurs if the placenta is not providing enough blood flow to the foetus.

The UmbiFlow device makes it possible for nurses, midwives and general practitioners in mobile, rural and low-resource primary healthcare settings to perform umbilical blood flow assessments at primary healthcare clinics, thereby greatly reducing the cases of mothers being referred to secondary care level.

Unlike conventional more expensive Doppler ultrasound equipment, UmbiFlow doesn’t require a specialist to operate it.

According to a recent study conducted by the SAMRC and the University of Pretoria’s Maternal and Infant Health Care Strategies Unit in Mamelodi, 1 in 10 pregnant women between seven and eight months, who displayed  no signs or symptoms of illness had significant abnormalities in placental function.

1 in 10 of these women had severe abnormalities of the placental function that it could lead to infant mortality if not attended to.

“Currently, only pregnant mothers that are considered “high risk” or present signs of slow foetal growth are referred by clinics to secondary care, ” said Unit Director at the SAMRC-University of Pretoria  Maternal and Infant Health Care Strategies Research Unit, Prof Rob Pattinson.

“It is at the secondary care level where Intrauterine Growth Restriction can be confirmed or excluded through the use of Doppler technology, and mothers are offered appropriate care to reduce the risk of still birth.”

Intrauterine Growth Restriction is associated with 33% of unexplained stillbirth and 80% of these mothers are considered clinically normal and therefore not referred to secondary care, says the SAMRC.

According to the SAMRC, the results of the research indicate that the prevalence of placental function abnormalities could be 10 times higher in developing countries than in high-income countries. The research is expected to be expanded to other areas of South Africa and, if successful, the UmbiFlow could be rolled out to other sites.

“The study is impressive in that it looked at women who, by currently used methods, would be considered clinically normal, but by using this method we were able to identify that they were not. This ultimately means that this simple hand held device is saving babies’ lives,” concluded Prof Pattinson.

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