Plastic “Wetsuit” Helps Save Mothers’ Lives


Innovations in health, medical, and safety tools—often made possible with plastics—help save countless lives, prevent diseases, and avoid injuries across the globe. Whether for children in sub-Saharan Africa or for suburban American families, these advances help improve basic hygiene, contribute to safety, and enable lifesaving measures.

The World Health Organization identifies postpartum hemorrhage—maternal bleeding following childbirth—as a major cause of death and disability, particularly in the developing world. According to the international non-profit PATH (originally Program for Appropriate Technology in Health), postpartum hemorrhage is the most common cause of deaths among new mothers, accounting for one quarter of all maternal deaths, the vast majority of these in developing countries.

One of WHO’s recommended treatments for postpartum hemorrhage involves a device made with plastics that looks sort of like the bottom half of a wetsuit. PATH collaborated with a university, another global nonprofit focused on reproductive health, and a product supplier to develop an antishock garment that “evolved from a technology originally developed by NASA for use on the space station.”

Made of lightweight neoprene (a versatile synthetic rubber—or plastic—invented by DuPont in 1931), the garment is made to wrap around a mother’s legs, pelvis, and abdomen and is then fastened tightly with hook and loop fasteners (typically called Velcro® and made from nylon and polyester plastics). The garment applies pressure that forces blood to vital organs and helps prevent hypovolemic shock caused by blood loss.

Once the garment was developed, the non-profit partnered with various groups and companies—from raw material providers to distributors—to make this life-saving plastic device more affordable and readily available to health clinics.

According to PATH, clinical trials “found a 50 percent decrease in deaths from severe obstetric hemorrhage when the antishock garment was used at primary care facilities. When fastened correctly, it can keep a mother alive until she can be transported to a facility with a higher level of care. Over the course of six years, the garment was successfully used on nearly 1,400 women in India and Nigeria by health providers.”