Network discovers ways to save mothers, babies

January / February 2013 | Volume 12, Issue 1

So much can go wrong during and soon after birth, especially in the developing world where many women lack access to medical care. Neonates struggle to breathe, mothers hemorrhage and infants fail to thrive.

Since 2001, the Global Network for Women's and Children's Health Research has spearheaded studies to find economical, sustainable interventions that save the lives of women and children in low-resource settings. Begun as a public-private partnership between the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, its mission is to expand scientific knowledge, develop research infrastructures and improve health outcomes. This unique collaboration comprises seven developing country research sites and a data coordinating center, with NICHD providing scientific oversight.

Support for the network has expanded to include other NIH components, including Fogarty, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Cancer Institute and National Institute of Mental Health.

Studies focus on several high-need areas, such as preventing life-threatening obstetric complications, modifying childbirth practices, improving infant birth weight and nutrition, and reducing prematurity. Scientists from developing countries, together with peers in the U.S., lead teams that identify population needs and conduct randomized clinical trials and implementation research. A number of the network’s discoveries have led to significant improvements in maternal and child health.

Preventing postpartum hemorrhage

The leading cause of death among women during childbirth in the developing world is postpartum hemorrhage. The network conducted a trial of a cheap, safe drug called misoprostol among women giving birth in India. Results showed the drug significantly reduced hemorrhaging. Misoprostol is now used widely in low-resource settings, saving the lives of countless new mothers.

Helping babies breathe

Birth asphyxia is responsible for more than one-quarter of all neonatal deaths. The network supported development and testing of a training program to teach birth attendants how to resuscitate and care for asphyxiated newborns. Results demonstrated that one in every six neonatal deaths can be averted with this essential newborn care. The training has since been widely adopted.

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