The Use of Chlorhexidine to Reduce Infant Mortality

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SEATTLE — Around “2.6 million newborn babies die within their first month of life,” according to USAID. As of 2017, studies have shown that infant mortality rates are higher in countries in Africa and the Middle East. While child mortality is lower than it has been in the past, infant mortality remains an issue globally. However, there is a solution to the grim topic: Chlorhexidine. The use of Chlorhexidine during childbirth can potentially save millions of lives. This article will articulate the relationship between under-resourced communities and death amid newborn babies as well as the antiseptic that is saving them.

Under-Resourced Areas

Compared to Africa and West Asia, other countries show significantly lower mortality rates. USAID mentioned that fewer than 1% of “high-resource countries” experience infections among newborns. The reasoning behind this is likely due to the frequency of at-home births in countries like Afghanistan, Congo and Bangladesh. According to The Guardian, 20% of children in Africa will live their lives in poverty. This is partly due to high fertility rates, which without the proper resources, do not always end in healthy babies.

For example, when performing at-home births, unsanitized household items like scissors are often used to cut umbilical cords. This drastically increases the chances of the newborn baby to contract an infection just moments after birth, leading to higher infant mortality. In higher-resourced areas, like areas with access to healthcare facilities, the birthing process includes sanitized tools, resulting in significantly lower infection rates. This drastic difference in resources is costing the lives of numerous newborns every day. This does not have to be the reality of infant mortality, though. The use of Chlorhexidine could potentially be the solution.

What is Chlorhexidine?

Chlorhexidine is a topical antiseptic and disinfectant. When used in births, the gel or liquid form of Chlorhexidine can be used to protect a newborn baby’s umbilical stump. This prevents the potential for infection. USAID mentions that the use of this antiseptic can decrease a newborn baby’s risk of infection by nearly 70%. Moreover, in a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), the use of Chlorhexidine decreased neonatal mortality by almost a quarter compared to infants who did not receive any disinfectant. Many look to the country of Nepal to consider the benefits. In Nepal, the use of Chlorhexidine has benefited more than 1.3 million babies.

Moreover, Chlorhexidine is affordable and commonly used in high-resource countries. Given just how affordable Chlorhexidine is, many under-resourced countries have the potential to include the antiseptic into their healthcare systems and their own homes. This access can help mobilize communities all across the globe.

Potential Negative Effects

There has been some criticism of the disinfectant, however, and it is not widely accepted just yet. One 2012 study published by the NCBI mentions that there is “limited safety data” about Chlorhexidine. Because of this, the study asserts that the use of Chlorhexidine is not safe with children younger than 2 months old. This is held true by Poison Control, as they maintain the argument that the antiseptic agent is not consistently safe, especially for babies. In fact, it is frequently referred to as a contact allergen, causing skin irritation. Research published in The Lancet Magazine, a peer-reviewed medical journal, even suggested that Chlorhexidine might not be the most effective drug to reduce infant mortality.

However, with a focus on control of manufacturing as well as maintaining healthily concentrated amounts, continuing the use of Chlorhexidine could save millions of lives across the world. More manufacturing of the antiseptic is the first step in providing stock for under-resourced countries. More resources, like Chlorhexidine, will significantly help babies and mothers alike. This aid will allow poverty-stricken, under-resourced countries and communities to grow socioeconomically.

Anna Hoban
Photo: Pixabay

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