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Let's Test a Life-Saving Balloon

Worldwide, a woman dies from an uncontrollable postpartum hemorrhage every four minutes, totaling 140,000 deaths per year. There is a medical device called a balloon tamponade that can help save a mother from excessive blood loss.
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In the minute or so it takes you to read these lines, 150 new babies will have been born across the globe. For many families, it will be one of the most special minutes of their lives. For many mothers, it's a moment of joy -- but it can easily turn into a heartbreaking nightmare.

On June 26, 1981 I gave birth to my first child, Finn. Like many new moms, I started losing blood, and lots of it. A medical team managed to stop the bleeding, but not before my red blood cell count plummeted. In spite of the scare, I was the lucky mom -- I was in a teaching hospital in New York City.

Worldwide, a woman dies from an uncontrollable postpartum hemorrhage every four minutes, totaling 140,000 deaths per year. This complication is the leading cause of death for new moms, and is responsible for 25 percent of maternal mortality cases. It should be no surprise that most cases occur in the developing world -- most babies are born there and, given more limited resources, many new mothers in developing countries do not have access to the skilled, live-saving medical support that I had.

There is a medical device called a balloon tamponade that can help save a mother from excessive blood loss. Tamponades are effective almost every time they are used. However, with costs ranging from $77 to $312 for a single-use tamponade, they are prohibitively expensive for widespread use in developing countries. It is a familiar story: We know how to save lives, but high costs keep our hands tied.

We could lose hundreds of thousands more moms while we wait for the price of tamponades to come down. Or, we could be on the hunt for breakthrough solutions to development problems that are far less expensive. Here at the U.S. Agency for International Development, we started a Development Innovation Ventures program (DIV) to go the second route. DIV offers grants to innovative new development solutions, and a Seattle-based global health organization with reach into 70 low-income countries applied.

Smart and clever researchers at the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) designed a safe, simple balloon tamponade that, at less than $10 per device, would be affordable in the developing world. The tamponade stops hemorrhaging and controls uterine bleeding at as much as a 97 percent reduction in cost. It's these kinds of cost savings that we search for at DIV: foreign assistance that produces less expensive ways to improve lives.

With the $100,000 award from USAID's Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) PATH and partners will develop, test and validate product requirement specifications and a low-cost manufacturing feasibility plan for a safe, effective tamponade device that meets international standards for medical devices. A PATH team will conduct user-based evaluations of the design in Ghana.

Should this device prove successful, the results could be transformative for mothers across the world. These tamponades are a high-impact, non-surgical, proven intervention for postpartum hemorrhaging. When a balloon tamponade is inserted into the uterus and filled with water or saline, it can stop bleeding within 10 to 15 minutes.

Through DIV, USAID invests in compelling development solutions that dramatically lower the cost from current best practice. DIV tests the solutions using cutting-edge analytical methods, and if the evidence shows that the solution works, DIV supports the project to scale up to development grand slams.

Finn and I, along with his dad and sister, celebrated his 30th birthday. For 140,000 other kids born that year, their moms were not around to share in that milestone, or any others. At USAID, we are thrilled to partner with innovators who find inexpensive ways to help birth be a source of lasting joy for all families.