Maternal and Child health

Across the globe, a woman dies unnecessarily every 90 seconds in childbirth, leaving more than a million children motherless each year.

Our researchers know they can save lives by working with communities to develop better care plans for new mothers, covering everything from health care and food security to transport. Their research spans disciplines, helping to address and shape health policy and to tackle disease and other causes of poor maternal and child health.

With the aim of reducing preventable infant and childhood mortality rates and to increase public awareness of prevention and treatment of diseases, we are working to prevent unnecessary maternal and childhood mortalities globally and to better understand and provide treatment and therapies for genetic diseases.

Across our disciplines– from Public Health to Chemistry and Computer Science–we work in areas as diverse as formulating effective policies to tackle childhood obesity, to developing new technologies to aid diagnosis of infections in low income countries or to understand and develop therapies and treatments for genetic disorders.

From working on policy recommendations to creating and implementing new diagnostic technologies, our researchers will be pioneering change to address the global priority of protecting maternal and child health and wellbeing.

Projects available under this theme

Find out more about the project and apply directly to the scholarships via the listings below. You can also follow our guidance on how to apply to the Global Challenges PhD Scholarships.

Prevalence of nutritional rickets and osteomalacia in pregnancy, infancy and sudden unexplained childhood death: implications for public health prevention programs

Hoegler and Hewison

In the UK, public health policy for vitamin D supplementation in pregnancy and infancy is neglected, with low uptakes of vitamin supplements. Reports of deaths from heart failure due to hypocalcaemic cardiomyopathy, morbidity from hypocalcaemic seizures and rickets in high risk infants are very concerning. Since the true prevalence of occult bone disease caused by VDD in the UK remain unknown, creation of effective public health prevention strategies is inhibited.

We will identify the UK prevalence of:

  1. Rickets and pre-rickets (histological, biochemical and radiological) in sudden unexplained death in infancy and childhood (SUDIC) 
  2. Osteomalacia and VDD (biochemical) in ethnically at-risk women at childbirth
  3. Rickets (biochemical and radiological) in infants of mothers with osteomalacia

We aim to aid the prevention of consequences of VDD in pregnancy and childhood is a priority on the WHO global agenda, building the evidence to support-monitored vitamin D supplementation in pregnant women (at antenatal visits) and in infants (at child health surveillance visits) in the short term, and promote food fortification in the long term. 

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Using economic experimental methods to inform policies to tackle childhood obesity

Frew and Drouvelis

Childhood obesity is one of the most serious global challenges of modern times. Formulating effective policies to tackle childhood obesity requires an understanding of how children and families respond to incentives, rewards and information, and on the social norms and environment in which they live.  The objective of this PhD is to use experimental economic tools to explain behaviour on overweight and obesity, focusing on school-aged children, and their parents/guardians.  Over the last 20 years, economists have used experiments to develop policies relating to pollution and environment regulation – this is an under researched area in the context of childhood obesity.  This is an exciting opportunity for a student with a strong undergraduate degree in economics, medical sciences or a relevant social sciences subject.  It will involve working with academics at the University of Birmingham, working closely with Services for Education, and Birmingham Local Authority, as well as informing policy at a national and international level.  

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Affordable point-of-care lactate sensor for maternal sepsis

Gupta and Lissauer 

Sepsis, which occurs when infection leads to life threatening organ dysfunction, is one of the main causes of maternal death, especially in low income countries (Say, 2014). Early diagnosis followed by timely intervention with the correct treatment is essential to reduce these preventable deaths, yet improving sepsis care has been relatively neglected by international efforts, and has only recently become the focus for action by the World Health Organisation and major international donors. (WHO Statement on maternal sepsis, 2017).

The measurement of lactate is part of the gold standard of sepsis care, and a key requirement of the American Surviving Sepsis Campaign guidelines and in the UK the NICE guidelines for sepsis. This marker helps clinicians detect sepsis rapidly, determines severity and guides subsequent management.

The World Health Organisation maternal sepsis working group, of which we are part, has identified the lack of maternal lactate monitoring as a major barrier to the provision of high quality maternal sepsis care. Innovation to make this available in low resources setting, where there is the greatest need, is urgently required.

This project will develop a low cost point-of-care sensor for quantitation of lactate in blood samples collected via finger prick. The blood sample will be introduced in the sensor by capillary action to reduce errors as a result of inaccuracies in sample volumes. The student will also have the opportunity to visit sites where the team are currently running maternal sepsis quality improvement studies at 13 health faciltiies in Malawi. There they will be able to understand the requirements of the device and gain feedback from future users.

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In vivo imaging of Spinal Muscular Atrophy at the gene transcription level using novel probes

Nyugen et al 

Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a severe neurodegenerative disease that results in degeneration and cell death of lower motor neurons in the spinal cord and loss of muscle movement. Among genetic disorders it is the leading genetic cause of infant mortality, it affects 1 in 11,000 infants, and those with the most severe form typically will not live to their second birthday.

SMA patients have a mutation in the gene survival of motor neuron 1 (SMN1), leading to the loss of function of the gene, and patients are unable to produce the full-length SMN protein vital for correct muscle function. This ultimately leads to muscle deterioration and loss of control movements.

The first, and only FDA approved treatment, for SMA was approved in Jan 2017. The drawback to this treatment is the administration by injection into the spinal canal, carried out by a trained healthcare professional. Whilst offering new hope for patients and their families we are still a long way from less painful IV injection therapy or even orally administered drugs.

In order for a simple and painless therapy to be achieved, further understanding of the disease is needed. Our project will provide probes to visualise the gene transcription event, live, thus offer a new platform technology for the study and optimisation of therapeutic approaches.

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