Background: About 500,000 sepsis-related deaths per year arise in the first 3 days of life. On the basis of results from non-randomised studies, use of vaginal chlorhexidine wipes during labour has been proposed as an intervention for the prevention of early-onset neonatal sepsis in developing countries. We therefore assessed the efficacy of chlorhexidine in early-onset neonatal sepsis and vertical transmission of group B streptococcus.
Methods: In a trial in Soweto, South Africa, 8011 women (aged 12-51 years) were randomly assigned in a 1:1 ratio to chlorhexidine vaginal wipes or external genitalia water wipes during active labour, and their 8129 newborn babies were assigned to full-body (intervention group) or foot (control group) washes with chlorhexidine at birth, respectively. In a subset of mothers (n=5144), we gathered maternal lower vaginal swabs and neonatal skin swabs after delivery to assess colonisation with potentially pathogenic bacteria. Primary outcomes were neonatal sepsis in the first 3 days of life and vertical transmission of group B streptococcus. Analysis was by intention to treat. The trial is registered with ClinicalTrials.gov, number NCT00136370.
Findings: Rates of neonatal sepsis did not differ between the groups (chlorhexidine 141 [3%] of 4072 vs control 148 [4%] of 4057; p=0.6518). Rates of colonisation with group B streptococcus in newborn babies born to mothers in the chlorhexidine (217 [54%] of 401) and control groups (234 [55%] of 429] did not differ (efficacy -0.05%, 95% CI -9.5 to 7.9).
Interpretation: Because chlorhexidine intravaginal and neonatal wipes did not prevent neonatal sepsis or the vertical acquisition of potentially pathogenic bacteria among neonates, we need other interventions to reduce childhood mortality.
Funding: US Agency for International Development, National Vaccine Program Office and Centers for Disease Control's Antimicrobial Resistance Working Group, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.