Fetal surveillance system could alert doctors to high-risk pregnancies | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - October 2010

Fetal surveillance system could alert doctors to high-risk pregnancies

One in every 200 babies is stillborn in the UK – that’s 11 every day. Losing an infant is heartbreaking for its grieving parents who struggle to accept why their child died. Babies of women with conditions such as pre-eclampsia and diabetes, and babies who grow slowly in the womb, are known to be at risk, but the causes of stillbirth are largely unexplained.

In fact, unborn children themselves could help provide the answer. Many mothers who had stillborn babies said the pattern of their baby’s movement changed in the days before the stillbirth: the baby kicked less than usual or felt motionless. A consultant from the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital in Belfast believes careful monitoring of fetal movement could pick up these changes.

Obstetrician Dr Stephen Ong is working with experienced software engineer Dr Fatih Kurugollu and movement analysis specialist Dr Joan Condell to develop a surveillance system – similar to CCTV – that would draw attention to possible issues. They are looking to recognise and analyse a baby’s movements using state-of-the-art computer programs.

By taking one-minute ultrasound scans of around 100 healthy women, who are five to six months pregnant, and recording what they see on DVD, the researchers hope to develop software that can recognise normal and abnormal movement and potentially give an early warning if a baby is at risk of stillbirth.

The three-year project is in its early stages and the researchers hope the new system will enable doctors to intervene quicker when a baby is in distress, by delivering it early, for example. Ultimately, they hope to develop a mobile device for domestic use.

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