New Medicine Could Save Thousands Of Mothers From Dying After Childbirth

by Wendy Wisner
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The idea of women dying during childbirth is not something any of us like to think about. Thankfully, it’s not something that happens all too often in the U.S. (though we do have a woefully higher rate of maternal mortality than most other industrialized nations). Still, it does happen, with 7 to 10 women dying per 100,000 live births, according to Medscape.

Approximately 8% of these deaths are caused by postpartum hemorrhaging (excessive bleeding after birth). In the not too distant past, many more mothers died from postpartum hemorrhaging than they do today, but that number has dropped thanks to the invention of oxytocin shots (often also referred to as pitocin) used to stop postpartum hemorrhaging.

But while oxytocin shots are successfully and routinely used in industrialized countries like the U.S., this is not the case in other parts of the world. In many poor and developing countries, mothers don’t always have access to the shot — and even if they do, medical facilities in these areas aren’t always able to refrigerate or administer the shots. Thus, their rates of maternal deaths caused by postpartum hemorrhaging are much higher than ours (if this makes you angry as all hell, it most definitely should).

As reported in Medscape, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 25% of maternal deaths in developing countries are due to postpartum hemorrhage. That’s 100,000 mothers per year. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists puts that estimate a bit higher, at 140,000 women per year, or 1 woman every 4 minutes.

Fuck. 1 woman every 4 minutes is un-fucking-acceptable. Statistics like this make me so angry. And so very, very sad, especially because the medical world has invented something to fix this problem, but hasn’t figured out a way to make it accessible to families in poorer, less-industrialized nations.

But that’s why it lifted my spirits to learn that there may be a way to solve this unconscionable disaster. Researchers at Monash University in Australia recently announced that they created a new form of oxytocin that could be used more successfully in poor and developing countries. It’s an inhaled version of oxytocin, which has huge advantages for mothers in poorer countries that may not always have access to electricity or trained medical staff. In these countries, the injected form of oxytocin is just not an option.

Michelle McIntosh, an assistant professor from the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences tells Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that this new form of oxytocin doesn’t need to be refrigerated and it can be administered simply and easily by a community healthcare provider.

As McIntosh explains, the current form of oxytocin is just not made taking into account the lives and circumstances of birthing women living in remote locations or areas with lower levels of resources. “Women are going to give birth late at night, there’s no lights, there’s no electricity, there’s nobody there to help,” Dr. McIntosh told ABC.

With the inhaled version of oxytocin, Dr. McIntosh estimates that 146,000 women’s lives could be saved.

As of now, the drug is just in the very beginning stages of use and hasn’t reached those women-in-need yet. All that has happened so far is that Monash University has tested the drug, and found that it had similar results in terms of stopping postpartum hemorrhaging as the injected version of oxytocin (which in and of itself is awesome news!). But Dr. McIntosh believes that her study has such strong results that there shouldn’t be a need for too much more exhaustive research before the drug can be manufactured and distributed.

“These results show that oxytocin can be delivered similarly via inhalation or injection and therefore we are less likely to be required to conduct the extensive and costly trials needed for an entirely new drug,” Dr. McIntosh explains, in a Monash University press release. “Instead, we should be able to move forward with trials on a much smaller scale, featuring patients numbering in the hundreds rather than tens of thousands, potentially making the medicine available much sooner.”

Of course, as well all know, things like this usually require more time and red tape than anyone likes to admit. And even after the drug is officially approved, funding will have to be available to manufacture and distribute the drug to the countries where it is needed.

Still, kudos to the good folks at Monash University for getting the ball rolling. And let’s hope that the results of all this will be that fewer moms will die after childbirth from something that is preventable by the miracle of modern medicine — and fingers and toes crossed the new drug gets to these moms sooner rather than later.

And let all of us who live in developed nations take a moment to reflect on how very lucky we are to have relatively easy access to lifesaving medicines and medical care for ourselves and our kids. Our medical system is far from perfect, and some of our poorest citizens do fall through the cracks all too often. But we do have much to be grateful for, and when you think about it, it’s truly amazing how far modern medicine has come in terms of saving lives.