A+ A-

Locally made low-cost device reduces stillbirths by half


Researchers at the University of Pretoria (UP) have just finished testing a device that could prevent thousands of still births every year. The Umbiflow is a low-cost, low-tech device that detects problems with pregnancies in otherwise healthy women, and ensures that they get the care they need for a healthy birth, before it’s too late.

The Umbiflow was developed in 2005 by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), in partnership with the Medical Research Council of South Africa (MRC). It is a low-cost alternative to commercially available ultrasound devices that measures the rate of blood-flow from the placenta to the fetus. Problems with blood flow means problems with pregnancy, says Dr Spencer Nkosi, a University of Pretoria researcher and medical doctor who is testing the Umbiflow device in the general population.

“The Umbiflow gives us a measure of placental function. After measurement, we group pregnant women into normal or abnormal placental function,” he says. “Women with abnormal function are directed to a high-risk clinic, where they get weekly or fortnightly checkups depending on our findings.”

Still births and other abnormalities are extremely high in South Africa and other developing countries, for reasons that are not altogether clear; in South Africa specifically, research from the Research Centre for Maternal, Fetal, Newborn and Child Health Care suggests that there are around 20 000 stillbirths every year. Many of these pregnancies seem completely normal, with mothers that appear healthy.

Nkosi explains: “One in ten healthy women that we scanned had an abnormal placental flow. Our question was, can Umbiflow help us identify fetuses at risk? When we did the trials in Mamelodi, we found that with Umbiflow we can reduce stillbirths almost by half.” Even more promising, the CSIR found and Nkosi confirmed that the device is as accurate as a commercial ultrasound machine, while being far cheaper and much easier to use. It is an ideal tool for hospitals in poor and rural areas that don’t have the resources of their urban counterparts.

The Umbiflow device uses a technology known as continuous wave doppler to measure the rate of blood  flow in the placenta, runs an algorithm, and outputs a value. The closer that value is to one, the lower the placental bloodflow is. A value of one represents a condition called absent flow, which means that the fetus is in real danger of dying.

According to Nkosi, absent flow was alarmingly common among the women in his study.

“Internationally, a low-risk population has absent flow in 0.3% of pregnancies; we found absent flow in 1.2%. That’s four times higher than the international reported average.”

Absent flow is commonly related to hypertension or developmental issues, but in Nkosi’s study these weren’t causing problems. He says he doesn’t yet know why this is occurring, and hopes that future research will provide an answer.

The next step in this research will be to test the Umbiflow on a national scale to see if it has the same positive results around the country. If so, Nkosi says this is a “eureka moment” for neonatal care in South Africa and the rest of the developing world.


A South African healthcare worker studies the readout from the Umbiflow device, a South African invention that helps detect risks with otherwise normal pregnancies. Image credit CSIR.

Privacy Policy

The University is firmly committed to protecting the privacy of users of the website. No personal information about users of this website will be disclosed to a third party without the prior consent thereto by the user. (Personal information shall at all times be dealt with in accordance with the provisions of the Protection of Personal Information Act, 2013 (Act 4 of 2013).)

The University reserves the right to automatically collect information on users' usage of the website (for example, via cookies) in order to improve users' browsing and interaction with the University and for non-personal statistical purposes.

Changes to this privacy policy

The University reserves the right to change, amend, or update this privacy policy periodically.

Modifications to the website

The University reserves the right to modify, change, amend or discontinue the website (or any part thereof) temporarily or permanently, without prior notice.

Links

The University may provide links to other websites or resources. This does not imply the University's endorsement of such sites. The University does not have any control over these websites and will, therefore, not be liable for any damages whatsoever arising from the utilisation of these websites by users.

The University does not prohibit third-party sites to link to publicly visible content on this website. However, it is expressly prohibited for any third party to frame any page on this website in any way whatsoever without the prior written approval of the University.

University of Pretoria proprietary rights

The copyright and other intellectual property rights (which include the University’s brand and logo), which are owned by or licensed to the University, existing in and attaching to this website, are the property of the University. These include but are not limited to text, content, design, layout, graphics, organisation, digital conversion and other information related to the website.

Users are granted a non-exclusive, non-transferable, revocable licence to:

  • access and use this website strictly in accordance with these terms;
  • use this website solely for personal, non-commercial purposes; and
  • download or print out or distribute content from the website, or any part thereof, solely for personal, non-commercial purposes, provided that all copyright and other intellectual property notices therein are unchanged.

Any reproduction of the content of this website, or a portion thereof, must include the following copyright notice: ©University of Pretoria. Users who wish to use the content from this website for commercial purposes may only do so with prior written permission from the University.

Disclaimer

This website is for information purposes only. No representations or warranties are given by the University of Pretoria (hereafter referred to as the University) regarding the accuracy of the information this website contains, any material this website provides for or any part of this website. Any reliance by the user on any information this website contains, any material this website provides for or any part of this website, is at the user’s own risk and the University shall not be liable in any way whatsoever in respect of the user or any other person, directly or indirectly, arising from the utilisation of the information this website contains, any material this website provides for or any part of this website.

The user hereby agrees that in the event of any dispute arising from the utilisation of this website in any manner, form or substance whatsoever, the relevant South African law will apply and the appropriate courts of South Africa will have jurisdiction.

Terms & Conditions

By accessing this website, the user hereby agrees to the following:

The use of this website is at the user’s sole risk. This website is provided on an "as is" and "as available" basis. The University gives no warranty that (i) the information posted on this website will meet the user’s requirements; (ii) the information posted on this website will be uninterrupted, timely, secure, virus free or error free; and (iii) the information posted on this website will be accurate or reliable.

Any material downloaded from or otherwise obtained through this website is utilised at the user’s own risk, and the user will, therefore, be liable for any and all damages of any nature whatsoever arising from such utilisation of the website.

Limitation of liability

The user expressly understands and agrees that the University shall not be liable for any damages (subject to the provisions of Chapter 2 of the Consumer Protection Act, 2008 (Act 68 of 2008) (even if the University has been advised of the possibility of such damages) resulting from: (i) the use or the inability to use the website; (ii) the cost of procurement of substitute goods and services resulting from any data, information or services obtained or messages received or transactions entered into through the website; (iii) unauthorised access to or alteration of the user’s transmissions or data; (iv) statements or conduct of any third party on the website; or (v) any other matter relating to the website.