Saving mothers and children

The Centre for Intervention Science in Maternal and Child Health opened on 15 October 2013. The centre works to improve the health of mothers and children in developing countries.

Professor Halvor Sommerfelt at the opening of CISMAC, a new Centre of Excellence at UIB.
PROUD HEAD OF CENTRE: Professor Halvor Sommerfelt, head of the CISMAC centre at UiB’s Centre for International Health, photographed after receiving the plate from the Research Council of Norway officially – and visibly – affirming CISMAC’s Centre of Excellence status.
Kim Andreassen

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Every year seven million children die before the age of five in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). 40 per cent of the children die within the first month of birth. Also, every year around 300,000 women die during pregnancy in these countries.

“These child and maternal deaths are only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the women and children survive the severe conditions, but are often scarred for life,” says Professor Halvor Sommerfelt at the University of Bergen’s (UiB) Centre for International Health (CIH), which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Professor Sommerfelt is also the head of the Centre for Intervention Science in Maternal and Child Health (CISMAC), which was designated a Norwegian Centre of Excellence (SFF) in 2012 and officially opened as a research centre on 15 October 2013. CISMAC will disseminate knowledge about child and maternal health and also implement and test various aid projects to reduce the mortality numbers.

“CISMAC qualify for the SFF status because they are world leaders in their field of research and have high international visibility,” says Liv Furuberg, Senior Adviser at the Research Council of Norway, who was present at the opening event.

The Research Council of Norway is behind the SFF programme and provides the basic source of funding.

Testing proper measures

Basically the centre will perform so-called intervention studies, i.e. studies that test the effect of various measures, such as vaccination programmes. In a classic vaccine study a group is usually divided in two. Whereas the children in one group are vaccinated, the children in the other group receive nothing or a placebo. Then the children are monitored to measure to what extent the vaccine reduces incidents of a disease.

“Once it determined whether a vaccine works, many other questions remain. For instance, how to reach out to those who need help the most,” says Sommerfelt.

The group plan to conduct 12 projects in Asia and Africa.

The "kangaroo" children

“CISMAC’s planned intervention studies are a very exciting and important initiative. We look forward to receiving future results from them,” says Orin Levine, director for vaccine delivery at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “These will help us in our work better to select vaccines for mothers and children in developing countries.”

Another intervention study planned by CISMAC is the so-called Kangaroo-mother care project, in partnership with the Gates Foundation. The study will be conducted in India and several countries in Africa, with thousands of mothers participating.

Just like the kangaroo does, the project aims to protect early born and underweight children by keeping them close to the mother for several hours a day for a number of weeks. The researchers hope that this will improve the children’s development and help their chance of survival.

“The project is based on Latin American studies, which show that the survival rate of the child increases dramatically if it is virtually stuck to the mother for several hours every day right after birth,” Sommerfelt explains. “It also aids their development and reduces the risk of serious disease in the first – and crucial – period of their life.”

Part of a broader strategy

Special adviser on global health for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tore Godal, presented Norway’s strategy for global child and maternal health at the CISMAC opening. He believes that the centre’s plans fit well in with Norwegian development goals.

“We are very interested in this type of large studies that CISMAC plan. Their work will enhance the body of evidence that underpins the work we do to reduce mother and child mortality worldwide,” says Godal.

Sommerfelt believes that the new centre’s visions fit well into the broader strategic goals for development aid of both the outgoing and incoming government of Norway, a changing of the guards after Norwegian parliamentary elections in September 2013.

“In its manifesto, the new government explicitly write that they are to continue the outgoing government’s focus on child and maternal health,” Sommerfelt says. “They place greater emphasis on impact evaluations, want to strengthen expertise in partner countries and improve women’s education in developing countries. All of which are central to the work we plan to do.”

Global aspirations, local inspiration

In her speech UiB’s Vice-Rector for international affairs Anne Christine Johannessen enthused about the global scope of CISMAC’s work. She also hopes that the new centre will inspire other research groups at the university to apply for external funding.

“The fact that there are researchers leading the way and conducting great research such as this stands as a source of inspiration for other research environments at UiB to try and achieve the SFF status,” says Johannessen.

(Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Ole Drønen.)