“Smart” Diaphragm Best Choice to End Preterm Birth?

pregant belly

WHILE MANY have claimed that necessity is the mother of invention, oftentimes, needs can be met and problems solved without having to lock oneself in a laboratory. It’s a shame that scientists at the University of California in San Francisco didn’t keep this in mind when they created the “Smart Diaphragm,” a device used to detect the early signs of preterm birth and provide a way for this to be prevented. It’s an important endeavor: the World Health Organization reports that preterm birth rates globally are increasing and this is the leading cause of death in newborns.

Statistics show that when a mother is living in poverty, it is more likely that her preterm baby will die (there’s a 90% chance), as she does not have access to the medical care, nutrition, or hygiene provided to babies born to high-income families (where the chance drops to 10%). Over 60% of preterm births occur in Africa and South Asia.

However, those in developed countries are not immune to some of the known causes of preterm birth, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Interestingly, the rate of preterm births in the US is the sixth-highest in the world, with Bangladesh and the Democratic Republic of the Congo seeing lower rates. This is possibly due to use of IVF in the US, as well as health issues linked to poor diet, and the prevalence of preterm caesareans. Some studies have suggested that it may also be linked to the popularity of douching, which results in bacterial vaginosis, which in turn is linked to preterm births. Some 30% of American women suffer, often unknowingly, from bacterial vaginosis, a problem that also has roots in poor diet and high stress.

So, in the world’s richest country, preterm births do happen, but the baby has a much better chance of surviving. If the mother can afford the medical treatment necessary, that is.

Impoverished mothers are much less likely to get good pre-natal care and have a higher risk of infection for themselves and their children. WHO believes three-quarters of babies born preterm could be saved with current, simple, cost-effective interventions like access to antibiotics and breastfeeding support.

Yet, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated over $2 million to the development of the Smart Diaphragm in the hopes that it will provide a warning sign that gives a pregnant woman in a developing country time to seek a doctor and get treatment for an infection or injections that strengthen the cervix. The Smart Diaphragm uses an “electrical and light signal” to detect changes in the cervix that are monitored and recorded on a computer, accessed by health practitioners at a local hospital.

It’s an expensive piece of equipment to be handing out to women who are living in poverty and have trouble accessing basic needs like food, shelter and general health care. It’s confusing to imagine how this might be applied in developing countries, when we are repeatedly told that many women cannot get medical care for easily-treatable problems, let alone get around the clock surveillance from a doctor concerned that they avoid preterm labor.

This is perhaps part of the Gates Foundation drive to reduce global population numbers. More healthy babies born, means less babies born overall as mothers in poverty often cite the higher chance of childhood death as a reason to have five or six children. Bill Gates can often be heard justifying vaccination programs along the same line of logic, which seems cynical and unfortunately makes more persuasive an argument than just saving lives.

As WHO states in its report on preterm birth, there are already many easy ways to prevent the deaths of babies born preterm. All of these, however, involve decreasing poverty – an aim that cannot be brought about by handing out Smart Diaphragms.

Although the Smart Diaphragm website judiciously avoids mentioning the word “wireless” in its copy (they’re still looking for research study participants, by the way), the device won the Vodaphone Wireless Innovation Award some years back. It’s notable that the term “wireless” is replaced with the more vague “electrical signal” explanation.

When other wireless devices – like the fertility-monitoring OvuRing or the recently announced birth control implant – have gotten press, women voiced concern about having a wireless signal traveling through their body, even if it is only turned on briefly. We are surrounded by electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from devices, including those we keep on or near our bodies (like cell phones). However, having a device inside your body transmitting a wireless signal past and through your reproductive organs could be something else entirely.

Katie Singer — women’s health writer, fertility expert, and member of The Electromagnetic Radiation Policy Institute — released An Electronic Silent Spring earlier this year, a book that outlines the potential hazards to our health and the environment from wireless devices. The book discusses EMR exposure and its relationship to infertility, cancer, diabetes, allergies, asthma, and neurological diseases.

Although a pregnant woman living in poverty may be exposed to many health hazards every day, it is not right to dismiss the potential dangers of an internal wireless device on this basis. The Smart Diaphragm creators say there is little danger, and those in developing countries are too used to being told that the end justifies the means when it comes to medical intervention. It seems doubtful we have enough published research to say definitively that EMR received and given out internally will be unproblematic. The Smart Diaphragm will use Bluetooth technology, which has only been in existence for some 15 years — not nearly long enough to accurately judge long-term effects of signal exposure on the human body.

If all it takes to bring the rate of death for preterm babies down to 10% is access to basic healthcare and support for pregnant women, then why don’t we do that instead? That would be really smart.

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