Simple use of an inexpensive disinfectant could save hundreds of thousands of newborn lives each year.
That's the conclusion of recent studies from South Asia.
The umbilical cord is usually cut right after birth.
The World Health Organization recommends leaving the stump alone.
But that raw stump can be a pathway for potentially fatal infection if the cord is cut with an unsterilized instrument, or if the baby is born in an unsanitary environment.
Newly-published research led by scientists at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, involved about 30,000 newborn babies in Bangladesh. In one-third, the umbilical cord stump was left untreated. In the other births the stump was cleaned with an antiseptic called chlorhexidine, either one time or daily for a week after birth.
The survival rate was significantly higher when the antiseptic was used, says senior author Prof. Abdullah H. Baqui. "What we found is, in the single cleansing there's a 20 percent lower neonatal mortality. In the seven-day cleansing arm, there's only six percent lower mortality, which is not statistically significant."
Two other recent studies had similar findings - one in Nepal, and one in Pakistan, published online along with Baqui's paper in The Lancet.
Baqui says treating the umbilical cord stump with chlorhexidine antiseptic is a safe and inexpensive strategy that could put a big dent in infant mortality rates, especially among the 60 million or so babies who are born at home each year.
"This is a simple intervention. It has the potential to avert about half a million deaths globally [each year], so I think it's something simple and we should just go ahead and implement."
In a commentary published with Baqui's paper, experts at the UCL Institute for Global Health in London say it could be a challenge to introduce the chlorhexidine treatment on a large scale in some regions. But if it can be implemented, they believe the disinfectant treatment would be as successful in the real world as it has been in these studies.