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Grand Challenges: Saving Lives at Birth

By: Celia Pett, Medical Associate, EngenderHealth

A needle-free non-refrigerated aerosol formulation of oxytocin for treatment of postpartum hemorrhage (PPH), a low-cost portable newborn respiratory support unit, and an ingenious device for facilitating assisted vaginal delivery were among the winning proposals at the “Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development” contest announced in Washington, DC last week. USAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada, the Government of Norway and the World Bank launched the contest in early 2011 to find “groundbreaking” tools and approaches to improve the health of mothers and newborns in rural, low-resource settings during their most vulnerable hours: the 48 hours around the time of birth. Applicants could submit proposals for either a seed grant of up to $250,000 to demonstrate proof of concept for an innovation or a transition grant of up to $2 million for scale-up of a cost-effective integrated innovation.

More than 600 submissions were reviewed by the Grand Challenges Committee, and 77 finalists were selected to display their projects at the DevelopmentxChange Marketplace. The high octane enthusiasm and hubbub of competing voices at the Marketplace were overwhelming and it was a grand challenge in itself to visit all the exhibits without lingering too long at the ones that seemed especially interesting and innovative. In addition to clinical innovations, a wide variety of mobile phone applications were on display, aimed at improving “health care seeking,” facilitating communication and information giving between health workers and rural women and supplying clinical support to rural health workers.

Nineteen seed grant award nominees were announced at the Forum the following day. These will go on to a further negotiation period before the final awards are decided. Transition grant nominees will be announced at a later date. There were two additional honorary awards. The Peer Choice Award went to Monash University for an aerosol formulation of oxytocin to treat PPH. The People’s Choice Award (selected by popular vote) went to the UCSF Bixby Center and ARMMAN for Project mMitra: Voice Messaging and Animation Service to improve MCH information access in rural India. This free mobile voice messaging and animated film service will provide “timed and targeted” information to rural Indian women during pregnancy and the perinatal period.

Addressing the finalists, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged all innovators to “keep going with these ideas and USAID will help develop and scale them to continue to improve and save the lives of women and newborns around the world.” Let us hope that these new products and approaches will be able to leapfrog the human resources and health system challenges which have hindered conventional development strategies.

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