First medical shock detector will save lives in developing world

Sunday 8 March 2015


The world’s first medical device to detect shock and high blood pressure in pregnant women could cut maternal deaths in developing countries by up to 25%, saving more than 70,000 lives a year.

Researchers from Guy’s and St Thomas’ and King’s College London have developed the Microlife Vital Signs Alert (VSA) with a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The hand-held device measures blood pressure and pulse to calculate the impending risk of shock. It is designed for use in developing countries, where 99% of all worldwide maternal deaths occur.

The body goes into shock when it can no longer cope with blood loss or infection and there is not enough blood to supply the brain and organs adequately. High blood pressure in pregnancy can indicate pre-eclampsia, a potentially deadly condition for both mother and baby.

Professor Andrew Shennan, consultant obstetrician at Guy’s and St Thomas’ and Professor of Obstetrics at King's College London, says: “In many developing countries, medical expertise is limited so people simply do not recognise the signs of danger before it is too late.

“The Microlife VSA will prevent deaths by detecting the signs of shock and high blood pressure early.

“We’re confident that by using the device in the care of these pregnant women, we can cut maternal mortality by at least 25%.”

The device requires minimal training. It has a traffic light system that clearly indicates the risk of shock or high blood pressure – green if a woman is not at risk, amber if she needs to be carefully monitored, or red if she requires emergency treatment.

The Microlife VSA was initially trialled in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia. It is now in use in seven countries in Africa and Asia in maternity, intensive care and community settings. Further trials of the device are taking place in hospitals and communities in South Africa, Mozambique, Pakistan, India and Nigeria.

Professor Suellen Miller, Director of the Safe Motherhood Programmes at the University of California, advised the team when they were developing the device. She says: "Delay in recognition of sick mothers is a leading cause of maternal death, with almost all deaths occurring in under-resourced areas of the world. This device is perfectly suited to those settings and has immense potential to impact on this major barrier to improving maternal health globally.”

The Microlife VSA is the first such device in the world to achieve World Health Organisation standards for use in under-resourced settings. It is accurate, costs less than £12, and the battery is suitable for the developing world as it can be used with USB phone chargers.

Professor Shennan adds: “We’re very proud of this device, it is unique for use in pregnancy. Not only can it accurately detect when a woman is in danger from high blood pressure or shock, but it also indicates, to untrained people when to act on this. I use it in my NHS clinic as it is superior to most existing devices for measuring blood pressure.”


Last updated: March 2022

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