Background: Infections and complications of prematurity are main causes of neonatal mortality. Very low birthweight premature infants have compromised skin barrier function, and are at especially high risk for serious infections and mortality. Our aim was to ascertain whether topical application of emollients to enhance skin barrier function would prevent nosocomial infections in this population.
Methods: We randomly assigned infants born before week 33 of gestation after admission to Dhaka Shishu Hospital, Bangladesh, to daily massage with sunflower seed oil (n=159) or Aquaphor (petrolatum, mineral oil, mineral wax, lanolin alcohol; n=157). We then compared incidence of nosocomial infections among infants in these two groups with an untreated control group (n=181) by an intention-to-treat analysis.
Findings: 20 patients in the control group, and 22 in each of the treatment groups left the hospital early, but were included in the final analysis. Overall, infants treated with sunflower seed oil were 41% less likely to develop nosocomial infections than controls (adjusted incidence rate ratio [IRR] 0.59, 95% CI 0.37-0.96, p=0.032). Aquaphor did not significantly reduce the risk of infection (0.60, 0.35-1.03, p=0.065). No adverse events were seen.
Interpretation: Our findings confirm that skin application of sunflower seed oil provides protection against nosocomial infections in preterm very low birthweight infants. The low cost, availability, simplicity, and effect of treatment make it an important intervention for very low birthweight infants admitted to hospital in developing countries.