July 29, 2011 -- About $14 million was awarded to innovations aimed at saving the lives of mothers and children around the world Thursday in a landmark event hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.
"Saving Lives at Birth," the first in a series of Grand Challenges for Development led by the U.S. Agency for International Development, brought together doctors, health workers, engineers and entrepreneurs from around the world to showcase innovations with the potential to prevent maternal and newborn deaths.
Awardees' projects included gadgets and health care delivery models, but all utilized creative, simple and inexpensive techniques designed for the developing world.
Diagnostics for All, a non-profit based in Boston, showcased postage stamp-sized pieces of paper that can detect anemia and hypertensive disorders in pregnant women and babies, life threatening but easily treatable medical conditions. An oxygen blender developed by the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) in Seattle doesn't require electricity and targets the millions of preterm infants born each year with immature lungs, making it hard for them to breathe.
A People's Choice award was given to ARMMAN, a tiny non-profit from India with a cellphone-based program that uses voice messages and animations to help women learn about pregnancy and potential complications.
Despite improvements in health in recent decades, maternal and newborn deaths remain high in many countries where resources, infrastructure and health services are lacking. A woman dies every two minutes in childbirth, and 99 percent of them are in the developing world, according to the World Health Organization. About 1.6 million neonatal deaths occur each year.
The No. 1 Cause of Maternal Death
About 105,000 women die annually during childbirth in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia because of excessive bleeding after birth known as post-partum hemorrhaging. Finalists of "Saving Lives at Birth" selected researchers from Monash University in Clayton, Australia, as the group favorite for an aerosol spray containing oxytocin, a drug commonly used to treat postpartum hemorrhaging. Oxytocin is delivered by injection and must be refrigerated, making it difficult to use in places where electricity, clean medical environments and trained health care workers are scarce, barriers an aerosol version would overcome.
Dr. Hanifah Sengendo, a pediatrician from Uganda working with Save the Children, was selected for an electricity-free fetal heart rate monitor used to track the breathing of fetuses and help early detection of abnormalities. In places such as Uganda, Sengendo said, where more than 50 percent of women give birth at home, the device has far-reaching implications beyond helping individual infants. It also encourages mothers to seek care at a medical facility by ensuring they receive quality care.
"These are mothers who will go back and spread the gospel that something can be done to make sure that my baby and myself survive," Sengendo said.
Find out how to make a difference for mothers and babies around the world with the Million Moms Challenge.
A ketchup packet-like pouch developed by Robert Malkin of Duke University in Durham, N.C., and containing anti-retroviral drugs helps HIV-positive moms prevent transmission of the virus to their newborns. Malkin hopes to prevent some of the hundreds of thousands of newborns who contract HIV each year.
Maternal Health Challenge Winners
The Grand Challenges is an attempt to bring science, technology and innovation to the field of development, lowering the cost of helping the world's poor and, in the process, saving lives, USAID administrator Shah said.
Seventy-seven finalists were selected from the more than 600 applications that poured in from around the world, a testament to the "extent of the creativity and science and potential that's out there," Shah said.
"Especially in these very difficult economic times ... coming up with more innovative, more local and sustainable ways to make it cheaper and easier to help mothers survive child birth and help children survive the first 48 hours of life is what this program is all about."
The awardees were named as Congress announced proposed budget cuts that would slash $715 million from U.S. foreign aid, threatening global health programs that address HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and childhood diseases.
ABC News' Award Winners
The winners of a maternal health challenge launched by ABC News in partnership with Duke Global Health Institute and the Lemelson Foundation were also invited to participate in events throughout the week.
A team of recent graduates from John Hopkins University in Baltimore, led by Sean Monagle, designed a small pen that can test for protein in the urine of a pregnant woman, a sign of pre-eclampsia. Eclampsia is responsible for more than one in 10 maternal deaths around the world and tests can cost upwards of a dollar.
While inexpensive by U.S. standards, existing prices are unaffordable for many developing countries. The pen test will cost less than half a cent.
Saving Lives at Birth is a joint venture of the USAID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Grand Challenges Canada and the World Bank.