A new test may revolutionise the attempts of the healthcare service to prevent premature births from taking place.
Scientists believe that a non-invasive device that somewhat resembles a pencil will assist them in accurately predicting the chances of pre-term delivery up to three months in advance.
The device has the potential to save the NHS over £1 billion annually, and works by alerting doctors of critical accumulations of moisture in the cervix region.
This early intervention will enable medics to artificially prolong pregnancy, thus preventing premature births.
The new test has already been trialled at an NHS hospital in Sheffield, and is particularly convenient as it takes only 15 seconds to implement.
Both GPs and nursing staff will be able to conduct the test, and it is hoped that it will eventually be possible to roll it out throughout the NHS system.
Gynecologists currently have to rely on time-consuming and expensive procedures such as ultrasounds or fetal fibronectin swabs.
These also tend to result in many false positive results, while the procedures also only give a few days notice to medics.
This new technique will enable premature births to be accurately predicted as early as 20 weeks gestation.
Professor Dilly Anumba, who is leading the research at Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital, is extremely enthusiastic about the potential of this new technology.
“If we are able to identify women at real risk, then we can target them for treatments way before pre-term birth occurs to reduce the risks of either the baby dying or the extremely premature baby surviving with cerebral palsy or other problems associated with prematurity.”
And the professor hopes that it will be possible to utilise this new approach to screen all mothers during their mid-term checkup at 20 weeks.
“If we can prolong pregnancy by two, three or four weeks we could make a big difference in terms of how well the babies are and how relatively healthy they are without some of these disabilities associated with pre-term delivery. There is every suggestion it will be cost saving for the NHS if it’s as good as we think it could be.”
The research has been funded in part by the National Institute for Health Research.
Around 60,000 babies are born early each year in the UK, while complications from pre-term delivery are the leading single cause of deaths in children aged under five