From Surfing to Saving Women’s Lives

Name, Maria Schneider Maria Schneider
24 June 2013
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Health workers in India demonstrate how the anti-shock garment can be used to control postpartum hemorrhage. Photo courtesy of Pathfinder International.

The maker of wetsuits and founder of Body Glove died last week – Bob Meistrell. Could he have ever imagined that the newfangled gear he developed in the 1950s for surfers and scuba divers in California would someday be used to save women’s lives in Nigeria and India?

The wetsuit made out of neoprene, a durable but flexible synthetic rubber, has been adapted to create an anti-shock garment. This device helps stabilize a woman who is at risk of life-threatening shock from the leading cause of maternal death worldwide – hemorrhage, excessive bleeding during and after childbirth.

The anti-shock garment, also known by the name “LifeWrap,” is made out of neoprene and is wrapped tightly around a hemorrhaging woman’s legs, pelvis and abdomen with Velcro straps. This compression device shunts blood from a woman’s lower body to her vital organs to prevent blood loss and can help steady her vital signs if she is in shock.

Hemorrhage caused an estimated 35% of the 287,000 deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth complications in 2010. A postpartum hemorrhage (PPH) occurs every four minutes.

Nearly all maternal deaths occur in the developing world and, tragically, almost all are preventable. Many occur in areas with limited infrastructure: unreliable electricity, too few doctors and midwives, and inadequate equipment and supplies. Therefore, an easy-to-use, affordable technology to manage PPH could save thousands of women’s lives each year.

A woman suffering from PPH can die within two hours unless she receives immediate and appropriate medical care. However, too many women experience several delays in treatment which put their life in jeopardy. For example, it may take time to identify that a woman’s bleeding has reached dangerous levels; she may arrive at a clinic already bleeding; the clinic staff may not be able to manage the bleeding because they lack training, supplies or medicines; transportation may not be available to get her to a clinic or hospital because she lives hours away from the nearest facility.

Now a part of the World Health Organization’s recommendations on the prevention and treatment of hemorrhage, the NASG (non-pneumatic anti-shock garment) is not a treatment, but helps buy time until a woman can be safely transported to a health facility with skilled staff who can provide appropriate care, including medicines, removal of the placenta, repair of lacerations, blood transfusion and surgery.

A stabilizer — combined with emergency obstetric care — may be a hemorrhaging woman’s best chance of survival in resource-poor settings and can also reduce morbidity. According to a 2010 article published in the journal Reproductive Health, “the non-pneumatic anti-shock garment showed promise for reducing blood loss, emergency hysterectomy, morbidity and mortality associated with PPH in referral facilities in Egypt and Nigeria.”

The MacArthur Foundation has been a major funder of efforts to assess the effectiveness of the NASG, including projects involving Pathfinder International, a U.S.-based NGO that has developed a Continuum of Care model to prevent PPH that involves the NASG.

As the NASG demonstrates, innovations to improve global health can come from unexpected places. How can we encourage creative adaptation of existing products to help solve today’s health challenges? How can we benefit from the technological advances of other industries— where the financial incentives to innovate are greater — to make a bigger impact on public health?

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