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B.C. researcher says device mimics parent’s touch to help babies cope with pain

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VANCOUVER — Researchers in British Columbia have designed a “robot” that helps reduce pain for premature babies by simulating skin-to-skin contact with a parent who may not be available during around-the-clock procedures in a neonatal intensive care unit.

Lead inventor and occupational therapist Liisa Holsti said the Calmer device is a rectangular platform that replaces a mattress inside an incubator and is programmed with information on a parent’s heartbeat and breathing motion.

The robotic part of Calmer is that the platform rises up and down to mimic breathing, and a heartbeat sound is audible through a microphone outside the device, said Holsti, adding a pad on top resembles a skin-like surface.

The aim is to help babies cope with pain through touch instead of medication as much as possible while they’re exposed to multiple procedures, such as the drawing of blood, which can be done multiple times a day over several months.

A randomized clinical trial involving 49 infants born prematurely between 27 and 36 weeks of pregnancy at BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre concluded Calmer provides similar benefits to human touch in reducing pain when the babies had their blood drawn.

The findings of the study, completed between October 2014 and February 2018, were published this week in the journal Pain Reports.

A parent’s or caregiver’s touch is the most healing and the Calmer isn’t intended to replace that, said Holsti, the Canada research chair in neonatal health and development. She worked with four other researchers on the project that involved a prototype built by engineering students at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

“We purposely did not design it to look anything like a human being,” she said, adding her work since 1985 in neonatal intensive care units, where she taught parents how to support their babies at home after leaving the hospital, sparked an interest in assessing infant pain and trying to relieve it.

“We have about 30,000 babies born prematurely in Canada alone every year so my hope would be that we would be helping all of those babies with Calmer.”

Holsti said nurses often provide so-called hand hugging by placing their hands around an infant’s head, arms and legs in a curled position during blood collection, but the study suggests the device would save almost half a million dollars in staffing costs every year at just the neonatal intensive care unit where the study was done.

Lauren Mathany, whose twin daughters Hazel and Isla were born 24 weeks into her pregnancy last April and weighed less than two pounds each, said that while the Calmer research had been completed by then, it would have been a reassuring tool for her and her spouse when they went home to sleep or take a shower after doing plenty of hang hugging and skin-to-skin touching.

“The NICU is the most difficult place to be. It challenges you in every single way,” she said.

Methany’s children spent over four months at the hospital and were medically fragile when they were bought home but are now thriving at almost a year old.

Dr. Ran Goldman, who has been a pain researcher at the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute for 20 years but wasn’t involved with the Calmer study, said the device shows promise because there’s a greater understanding that healing is delayed when pain is part of an infant’s treatment.

Scientists in the late 1960s believed babies didn’t feel pain but there’s now an increasing understanding that they’re more sensitive to it than older children or adults because their pain-inhibiting mechanisms haven’t fully developed, said Goldman, who is also an emergency room physician at BC Children’s Hospital.

“Research has shown that babies who suffered pain as neonates do keep this memory later on and respond differently when they get pain experiences later in life,” he said.

— Follow @CamilleBains1 on Twitter.

 

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

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RCMP seeks names of potential victims of coerced sterilization, Lucki says

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OTTAWA — The RCMP is seeking the names of potential victims of coerced sterilization procedures and wants lawyers to help in the process, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said Tuesday.

In testimony before the House of Commons health committee, Lucki said the RCMP is willing to meet with victims, adding it would be helpful if lawyers could talk to complainants about coming forward.

“The lawyers … if they were to speak with those victims and provide them the options of coming to the police, we would absolutely sit down with each and every victim that they had to look at it from a criminal point of view,” she said.

“Obviously they are not going to release their names without their consent as well. But … if we were to have those conversations, and possibly we could convince victims to come forward through the lawyers, that would be one avenue that we could explore.”

MPs asked Lucki to testify as part of a study about ongoing concerns from predominantly Indigenous women who allege they were coerced or forced into tubal ligation procedures during childbirth.

Her testimony also followed a letter sent this spring by NDP health critic Don Davies who asked the RCMP to conduct an investigation of serious and credible allegations that have been brought forward.

Lucki told Davies in a March letter that the force would work with commanding officers in each province and territory as well as other police agencies to see if any complaints have been reported.

“To date, we have no allegations that are on file for forced or coerced sterilization that were found to be reported to the RCMP directly,” Lucki said Tuesday. She said the RCMP takes all criminal allegations very seriously and that the force has reached out to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to raise awareness.

The issue has been the subject of much public scrutiny, particularly in the past two years.

In 2017, the Saskatchewan Health Region issued a public apology after complaints from Indigenous women, and a proposed class-action lawsuit was launched naming as defendants the Saskatoon Health Authority, the provincial and federal governments, and a handful of medical professionals.

Dr. Judith Bartlett, a Metis physician who co-authored the external review, told the committee on Tuesday that Indigenous women interviewed for the report often felt invisible, profiled and powerless.

She also said she does not believe women will come forward to the RCMP because there is “no safety there for them.” Those interviewed for the report were granted anonymity, she said, noting they often felt much better having been able to express the harm done to them.

Much more research is needed to understand the scope of the problem because any time an individual is asked to make a decision when they’re not in the state of mind to weigh pros and cons constitutes coercion, Bartlett said.

Dr. Jennifer Blake, chief executive of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, told MPs that obtaining consent for tubal ligations at the time of delivery should be avoided at all costs. She also noted that when she first learned of allegations a forced sterilizations, she thought it was in reference to a historical issue.

Last Tuesday, lawyer Alisa Lombard, a partner with the firm Semaganis Worme Lombard, told the health committee she represents a client, referred to as D.D.S., was sterilized without proper and informed consent in December 2018 at a Moose Jaw, Sask., hospital

That same month, the United Nations Committee Against Torture urged Canada to act to address the issue of coerced sterilization, setting a one-year deadline to report back on progress.

In response, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor and Jane Philpott, then Indigenous services minister, sent a letter to provinces and territories proposing a working group of officials to discuss the concerns.

Health Canada said Tuesday the group has had “productive discussions” about the scope and purpose of the federal-provincial-territorial plan to “advance cultural safety and humility in the health system.” As a first step, officials decided Health Canada would take the lead on “an environmental scan of cultural safety initiatives and practices across Canada,” the agency said in a statement.

—Follow @kkirkup on Twitter

Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press

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Blair says more gun-control action needed, signals no new steps before election

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OTTAWA — Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair says more must be done to address gun violence, but he’s also signalling that no new measures will be taken before the fall election.

Steps could — and should — be taken to prevent the theft, illegal diversion and cross-border smuggling of handguns, Blair said Tuesday. 

As he entered a cabinet meeting, Blair emphasized the importance of secure storage of firearms to prevent them from being stolen and ending up in the wrong hands.

The government is also open to working with municipalities to allow them to decide exactly where, or even if, firearms can be stored within their boundaries, he said.

However, the parliamentary sitting is expected to conclude shortly and the government is scrambling to tie up loose ends before the summer recess and an election campaign likely to begin in September.  

“Some of this would require regulatory and legislative change,” Blair said. “And I think it’s important not only to do the right thing, but to take the time to do it right.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Blair last August to study the possibility of a ban on handguns and assault-style rifles after a shooting spree in Toronto.

A recently released summary of a federal consultation said Canadians were divided on the idea.

Still, Blair’s office said late last month that no options had been ruled out to clamp down on guns “designed to hunt people” as it weighed new options. Rumours of a federal ban on the popular AR-15 semi-automatic rifle began to circulate.

While Blair reiterated Tuesday there are firearms the government considers “so dangerous that there really is no place in a safe and civil society for them,” he made no firm commitment to ban or buy back such guns from owners.

Blair stressed a need to ensure secure storage, prevent people from buying firearms on behalf of criminals and deter smuggling of weapons into Canada from the United States, which he called “the largest handgun arsenal in the world.”

“There are a number of very effective measures that I believe that we can and must take to create a safer environment.”

Allowing municipalities to enact additional restrictions on handguns would not only be “wholly inadequate,” it would also be inefficient, said Heidi Rathjen, co-ordinator of PolySeSouvient, which wants an overhaul of the gun classification system with the ultimate aim of banning weapons specifically designed to kill people.

“All one has to do is consider the glaring disaster resulting from a patchwork of state and local gun laws south of the border,” she said Tuesday.

“And one has to ask: why would stricter controls on handguns be justified in cities and not in rural areas? It seems more like the Liberals chose not to deal with the highly politicized issue of banning handguns and instead decided to pass the buck to municipalities.”

The law already requires safe storage of firearms, but there has been a “significant increase” in the theft of large numbers of handguns from homes and retailers, with the guns ending up on the street in the wrong hands, Blair said.

He acknowledged there are responsible handgun owners who obey all the rules. “We may ask them to undertake additional measures to secure their weapons to make sure that they’re not vulnerable to being stolen.”

Public Safety Canada says 24 firearms were stolen from a shop in Prince Albert, Sask., by snipping one cable, raising concerns that the after-hours commercial storage regulations could be insufficient.

Some businesses “may not be fully compliant” with existing regulations, say department notes released through the Access to Information Act. However, chief firearms officers “indicate this is infrequent and businesses come into compliance quickly when non-compliance is identified.”

The RCMP says some businesses go beyond minimum requirements through measures including shatterproof glass in display cases, video-monitoring systems and alarms, safes bolted to the floor, deadbolt locks and solid doors instead of hollow ones for storage rooms.

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press


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