About 4 babies are born every second of the day. Each year, however, more than 3 million babies do not survive past their first 4 weeks of life. The neonatal period starts at birth and extends for 28 days, during which newborns are especially vulnerable to severe infection, asphyxia (suffocation), or complications from premature delivery. Fortunately, a number of tools are available to help protect newborns during this critical period.
A recent study in Bangladesh has demonstrated that cleaning the umbilical cord of a newborn with an antiseptic, chlorhexidine, reduces the risk of infection and death by 20 percent. The umbilical cord, though often overlooked, can serve as an entry way for infection into the surrounding tissue and also the bloodstream. One-third of neonatal deaths each year can be attributed to infections, so simply cleaning the umbilical cord may be enough to save a baby’s life.
Sadly, the great majority of these preventable neonatal deaths still occur in places where mothers and newborns have the least access to adequate maternal and child health services. Ninety-nine percent of neonatal deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries. The neonatal mortality rate in Africa is 33 deaths per 1000 live births, compared to 4 per 1,000 in the United States.
It is a tragedy to lose even one newborn life when highly-effective interventions are available to dramatically improve newborn survival, for example: delivery by a skilled attendant in an institutional setting, proper hygiene at birth, keeping newborns warm, and early initiation of breastfeeding. Low-cost solutions, such as umbilical cord cleaning, are key to reducing the risk of infection in low-resource settings.
Babies deserve a safe and healthy life, no matter where they are born. So let’s start cleaning!