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Can Something as Simple as Sunflower Seed Oil Save Newborn Lives?

April 02, 2013

To mark the critical first 28 days of a newborn’s life–the neonatal period (when a baby is most at risk)– in the lead up to the Global Newborn Health Conference, Gary Darmstadt and others will be sharing, via Twitter, 28 days of “Did You Know?” facts about newborn health. Follow @gdarmsta, share the facts widely using #Newborn2013 and we can work towards saving newborn lives together.  

Did you know that the skin is the largest organ of the human body? It is one of the most important parts of our bodies, defending us against numerous health threats.   It protects the body from germs and toxins, prevents excessive water loss, and regulates our temperature, as well as monitors and alerts us to a variety of stimuli from the environment. But what if something prevents your skin from protecting you the way it should? 

First, imagine a preterm baby, born before 37 weeks of development, without enough time to fully develop her skin.

The skin of a preterm baby, in fact, is a significant entry point for life-threatening bloodstream infections. Being born too soon is a direct cause of about one-third of all neonatal deaths; but, as with blood infections, it also increases the risk of dying from other causes, like hypothermia.  

There is something that can be done to improve the chance of survival of these preterm babies.

Studies have shown that using emollients or certain types of moisturizers on the skin are effective in reducing serious infections in half and deaths from infections by about a quarter in preterm babies in hospital settings.

What is most interesting to me is that sunflower seed oil is one of the most effective emollients. As Africa and Southeast Asia carry a large burden of preterm births, this means that a low-cost, locally produced emollient could potentially be used by health care professionals and by moms around the world to help improve the chance of survival of their preterm babies.

In South Asia, families already have the practice of using topical emollients on babies, but oftentimes with potentially harmful substances, such as mustard seed oil, or applied in an injurious way such as use of excessive force when massaging the oil into the skin. Less is known about the practice of oil massage in Africa, but it also appears to be widespread although with more variation in practices, with some communities practicing massage with local plants or cooking oil.

What will it take to make this practice available to all preterm babies?

First, we need more evidence of efficacy and cultural acceptance. The question still remains whether moms in Southeast Asia would be willing to switch to the safer and more effective sunflower seed oil and if it would be effective in a home-based setting. A study to examine those questions is underway in Nepal and another will begin this year in Uttar Pradesh, India, But we also need more information from an African setting on whether this practice would be feasible and culturally acceptable for moms to adopt.

The topics of home-based neonatal care and scaling up successful interventions will be just two of many on the agenda for the upcoming Global Newborn Health Conference in April. This conference will provide a unique opportunity for participants to share challenges in newborn interventions, learn from others in the field and commit to accelerating action on newborn care.

Do you want to get involved? Join my team at where I am featuring a project to provide vulnerable newborn infants in sub Saharan Africa with life-saving breastmilk through a breastmilk bank. 

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