Affordable, efficacious, and safe interventions to prevent infections and improve neonatal survival in low-resource settings are needed. Chlorhexidine is a broad-spectrum antiseptic that has been used extensively for many decades in hospital and other clinical settings. It has also been given as maternal vaginal lavage, full-body newborn skin cleansing, and/or umbilical cord cleansing to prevent infection in neonates. Recent evidence suggests that these chlorhexidine interventions may have significant public health impact on the burden of neonatal infection and mortality in developing countries. This review examines the available data from randomized and nonrandomized studies of chlorhexidine cleansing, with a primary focus on potential uses in low-resource settings. Safety issues related to chlorhexidine use in newborns are reviewed, and future research priorities for chlorhexidine interventions for neonatal health in developing countries are discussed.
We conclude that maternal vaginal cleansing combined with newborn skin cleansing could reduce neonatal infections and mortality in hospitals of sub-Saharan Africa, but the individual impact of these interventions must be determined, particularly in community settings. There is evidence for a protective benefit of newborn skin and umbilical cord cleansing with chlorhexidine in the community in south Asia. Effectiveness trials in that region are required to address the feasibility of community-based delivery methods such as incorporating these interventions into clean birth kits or training programs for minimally skilled delivery assistants or family members. Efficacy trials for all chlorhexidine interventions are needed in low-resource settings in Africa, and the benefit of maternal vaginal cleansing beyond that provided by newborn skin cleansing needs to be determined.