Sunflower oil saves at-risk newborns from infection

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Saturday, March 5, 2005 Simply massaging low birth weight babies with sunflower seed oil can protect them from potentially fatal infections.

Infections and complications from preterm birth cause more than half of all neonatal deaths, and very low birth weight babies are particularly vulnerable.

Preterm babies have immature skin that lacks a protective film called vernix that has antimicrobial properties.

In some countries, such as India, newborns are routinely massaged with mustard oil.

But mustard oil, says Gary Darmstadt of John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, can delay recovery of the skin barrier and have a toxic effect on skin.

Seeking an alternative low-cost product, Darmstadt and colleagues experimented with sunflower oil and an ointment called Aquaphor that comprises petrolatum, mineral oil, mineral wax and lanolin.

The researchers tested the treatments on 497 newborns (72 hours old or less) and preterm babies (less than 33 weeks gestation) between 1998 and 2003 in Bangladesh.

They applied the treatments to the entire body besides the scalp and face three times daily for the first 14 days and then twice daily until discharge.

Babies treated with sunflower oil were found 41% less likely to develop infections than controls.

"Evidence is emerging that the skin is much more important as a barrier to infection than previously recognized, particularly in preterm infants whose skin is underdeveloped," says Darmstadt. "The good news is that treatment is available to strengthen the function of the skin as a barrier in these vulnerable newborns."

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