Why do Hospitals use Eye Ointment on Newborns?
Hi everyone. In today’s Q and A video, we’re going to talk about why so many hospitals put ointment in babies’ eyes after they’re born.
Hi. My name is Rebecca Dekker and I’m a nurse with my PhD and I’m the founder of Evidence Based Birth. Today we’re going to talk about eye ointment for newborns. This is one of three free videos all about vitamin K and eye ointment for newborns. If you haven’t subscribed yet to the emails that go along with these video lessons, make sure you do.
I released these three free video lessons in 2014 to celebrate the launch of my online class for professionals all about vitamin K and eye ointment. This video was originally recorded in 2014 and today I’m updating it in 2017.
Eye ointment. So here’s the deal. Eye ointment is basically done in the United States, in Canada, in quite a few low income countries. It’s not routinely done in most all European countries, including England, and it’s not done in Australia. Many people in Europe see pictures of our newborn babies in America and say, “What’s that weird goopy stuff in their eyes?” Seriously, they think we’re crazy. So why do American hospitals put ointment in newborn babies’ eyes? Well, the ointment is a topical antibiotic called erythromycin and it’s supposed to prevent an eye infection from gonorrhea and chlamydia called, and this is a really intimidating word but this is the big word that is used, ophthalmia neonatorum. It basically means pink eye in a newborn.
Now, all of you have probably had pink eye at some point in your life. Pink eye is inflammation of the lining of the eye and it can be caused by viruses, bacteria, irritation, or chemicals. Most of the time, pink eye is pretty benign even though it’s uncomfortable. But it’s not usually a big deal. It’s easily treatable and in many cases, like with viruses, it goes away on its own.
The problem with pink eye is if a baby contracts gonorrhea or chlamydia from their mother during birth, these are sexually transmitted infections, then this can cause a dangerous type of pink eye. That, if left untreated, can lead to blindness in about 3% of babies who are affected by this type of pink eye.
The Centers for Disease Control in the United States said that in 2014, about 1 in 1,000 Americans had gonorrhea and about 1 in 200 Americans had chlamydia. These rates may be higher or lower in other countries. Much of the time, these infections do not show any symptoms so it’s quite possible to be infected and not know it.
Let’s rewind a bit to the late 1800’s. More than a hundred years ago in 1880, a doctor named Dr. Crede discovered that if he put a silver nitrate ointment in the eyes of newborns, he could prevent nearly 100% cases of blindness from gonorrhea and chlamydia in newborns. This was a pretty big discovery at that time.
But let’s think for a minute. What’s different about the year 1880 compared to today? Well, number one, up until the 1940’s, they didn’t have any antibiotics. So if a baby developed this dangerous pink eye from gonorrhea and chlamydia, they couldn’t treat it. The infection would just rage on, potentially causing blindness.
Number two, they didn’t really have the ability to screen for chlamydia or gonorrhea. So many mothers had chlamydia and gonorrhea back then. It was much more common then than it is today. Plus, because women with gonorrhea and chlamydia might not have any symptoms, this meant that women with gonorrhea and chlamydia could give birth to babies and pass on the infections without knowing it. In fact, back in 1880, 1 in 10 babies caught this sexually transmitted infection from their mothers. Because we didn’t have antibiotics, we couldn’t treat the mothers and we couldn’t treat the babies. The infection was everywhere. It was crazy.
The third reason 1880 was different from today is because they eventually realized that silver nitrate was really, really painful. So once antibiotics were developed, they switched from silver nitrate to erythromycin.
This is a tube that has erythromycin eye ointment in it and you can see it’s pretty small, it’s pretty inexpensive, pretty cheap. It’s just like a little gel that goes … They would directly put in the lining of the baby’s eye. Erythromycin eye ointment might be a little uncomfortable and cause temporary blurred vision, but it’s not painful like the silver nitrate was. The problem is about 1 in 4 cases of gonorrhea is now resistant to erythromycin. A lot of countries have switched to something called povidone-iodine, which is a disinfectant drop that’s much cheaper and possibly more effective than erythromycin. However, povidone-iodine is not available in the United States.
This all explains why people in England, Australia, and so many other countries in Europe don’t use eye ointment in babies anymore. There’s really no need to. For one reason, they’re screening all pregnant women for gonorrhea and chlamydia and treating them, if necessary, to rid them of the infection. And their partners are also being treated so that they can avoid reinfecting the mother.
A second reason so many countries don’t use eye ointment anymore is because they can treat the baby’s eyes if they do develop an infection. In fact, Canada, which routinely uses eye ointments still, their pediatrician organization recently put out a statement saying that Canada should throw out the laws that require mandatory eye ointment for all babies and instead use the same screening and treatment method that is used in European countries. The American Academy of Pediatrics still stands by their recommendation to put erythromycin eye ointment in the eyes of all newborns in America. It will be interesting to see if they change their recommendation in the future to be more in line with their colleagues from Canada.
In the meantime, low income countries will probably still use the eye ointment or the povidone-iodine because those countries may have higher rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia and women are much less likely to get screened because they don’t have as good prenatal care. So if someone’s not getting adequate prenatal care, then the screen and treat method won’t work for them. In that case, the eye ointment or the eyedrops would be the better approach.
That’s it for today’s video. If you’d like to learn more, including the pros and cons of the ointment and whether or not it can work to prevent eye infections caused by staph infections, I’d like to encourage you to visit the EBB signature article on eye ointment in newborns. Also, if you end up, after talking with your care provider, deciding to decline the ointment, make sure you check the laws in your state. Some states in the United States require mandatory eye ointment for all newborns. Yes, that may sound crazy, but it’s true. Some awesome birth professionals and parents have actually joined together to work to get these laws reversed. I’ll post a few links below to show you some examples of how they got their laws changed in their states. That’s it for now. Thanks and bye.