A team of obstetricians and bioengineers from the US has designed a device intended to detect early signs of preterm labour.
It’s called the Smart Diaphragm, and the goal of this device is to reduce the number of premature births globally.
Is The Smart Diaphragm So Smart?
According to the World Health Organization, premature birth is the main cause of disability and death for babies globally.
Each year, an estimated 15 million babies are born prematurely (before 37 weeks gestation), and this contributes to the deaths of around 1 million children under the age of 5.
What Is The Smart Diaphragm?
The Smart Diaphragm is similar to the contraceptive diaphragm in shape and texture. It’s inserted into a pregnant woman’s vagina and sits over the cervix. Sensors in the diaphragm detect changes in collagen concentration, which indicate labour might begin early.
Before labour begins, the cervix starts to change, often without causing any symptoms. The cervix is made up mainly of collagen, which remains tightly packed together during pregnancy, keeping the cervix closed.
Before birth can happen, the cervix must soften and stretch. This happens due to a decrease in collagen and an increase in water in the cervix. These tiny changes often happen several weeks before labour begins but don’t cause any signs that would alert women to the possibility of labour.
The Smart Diaphragm detects these changes and monitors the amount of collagen and water in the cervix. The designers of the device believe these changes could be detected up to 2 weeks before labour begins, giving plenty of warning if preterm labour is likely.
How Does It Work?
The Smart Diaphragm has built in sensors. These sensors send and receive wireless signals, and they also shine and detect light. The cervical tissue reflects these signals back to the diaphragm, which measures the concentration of collagen and water in the cervix.
The sensors are connected, via Bluetooth, to a computer that records the measurements.
Is It Safe?
The Smart Diaphragm is currently in the planning stage, and the designers are actively recruiting research study participants. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated $2.7 million to help fund the development of the device.
Women who are at high and low risk for premature birth will be part of the study, which will see if the device can predict which women will go into preterm labour.
The study doesn’t say whether it will look at the safety of a device that transmits wireless signals from inside the human body. This would definitely be of concern to many.
We are constantly exposed to electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from mobile wireless devices like phones and tablets. There is growing concern about the connection between EMR exposure and diseases such as cancer and other disorders.
The safety aspect is important. An internal wireless device, which transmits signals around and through the reproductive organs, has the potential to affect the developing fetus, the woman’s future fertility, and the health of both mother and baby.
Who Can It Help?
With more than 60% of preterm births occurring in South Asia and Africa, it’s clear something needs to be done to prevent these early births. Women living in poverty are 90% more likely to lose a baby after a preterm birth than women who live in high-income countries, where the risk is 10%.
The WHO says many of these babies could be saved with low cost interventions, such as access to medical facilities, and better nutrition and hygiene. In high-income countries such as the US and Australia, the causes of preterm birth, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, are increasing. Yet babies are more likely to survive, because of better access to medical treatment.
Women in lower income countries don’t have access to good care during pregnancy, and are more likely to acquire infections. Better breastfeeding support, and simple interventions such as antibiotics, are likely to save 75% of babies born prematurely, according to the WHO.
The Smart Diaphragm has the potential to provide pregnant women in developing countries with a warning signal to seek medical assistance immediately, but there are other questions.
What will the device cost? Will it be affordable for these women? How likely are they to find medical help quickly? Currently, many are living in poverty and are unable to prevent infection and disease from causing preterm birth.
What Are The Alternatives?
Preventing disability and death due to preterm birth is an ideal most population health experts would like to see realised. So far, however, modern science hasn’t understood the mechanism of preterm birth well enough to prevent it from occurring.
Most often, if a woman is in preterm labour, her care providers will attempt to stop it, or at least delay it for as long as possible. In an impoverished country, to access this type of medical assistance is nearly impossible.
Research is under way to develop a simple blood test that can identify women who are at risk of premature birth. The test is relatively non invasive and can be performed as early as 18 weeks gestation.
For women in low-income countries though, prevention of preterm birth starts with better access to nutrition and sanitation before becoming pregnant, good prenatal care, and access to medical facilities during pregnancy and birth.
The Smart Diaphragm might appeal to tech savvy women of the Western world, but it seems the majority of women who need help could benefit from more practical prevention support.