A low-cost antiseptic used to cleanse the umbilical cord after birth could help reduce infant death rates in developing countries by 12%, according to a Cochrane review.
The authors of the systematic review found that when chlorhexidine was used on babies born outside of a hospital, it reduced the number of newborn babies who died or developed infections.
Chlorhexidine – defined by the World Health Organization as one of its “essential medicines” – has been used in hospitals and other clinical settings to prevent bacterial infections for many decades. It can be applied topically as a gel, wash or powder.
“Using chlorhexidine to clean the umbilical cord saves newborn babies lives”
The researchers said there was some existing evidence from countries with high infant death rates that using chlorhexidine as a cleansing agent after birth was a cost-effective way to reduce the risk of death from infection.
To look in more detail, they reviewed data from 12 trials involving over 87,000 newborns. Seven of the trials took place in South-East Asia, two in Africa, two in Europe and one South America.
Of the 12 trials, five carried out in community settings, and which included home births, provided the highest quality evidence.
They showed that cleansing cords with chlorhexidine reduced infant deaths by 12%, compared to keeping cords dry, said the review authors.
Using chlorhexidine also halved the number of newborn babies that suffered from omphalitis, swelling of the cord stump commonly caused by bacterial infections.
“Based on our review, using chlorhexidine to clean the umbilical cord saves newborn babies lives,” said lead researcher Dr Anju Sinha, from the Indian Council of Medical Research in New Delhi.
“The greatest benefits were seen in the South-East Asian studies,” said Dr Sinha. “The results from African studies are less convincing, so we would like to see whether the results from ongoing trials in Zambia and Tanzania can substantiate this evidence.”