In developing countries, babies that arrive prematurely with low birthweights have mortality rates that exceed 50 percent. Infections are to blame for many of these deaths. A new study suggests that one way to curb infections and save babies' lives is as close as the grocery store.
Unlike full-term babies, premature infants have skin that isn't fully developed. It also lacks vernix, a creamy, white film with a variety of protective properties, including antibacterial activity. "We thought [their skin] may not function well to guard against pathogens entering the body," says Gary Darmstadt of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Seeking a barrier against infection as preemies' skin matures, Darmstadt's team worked with 497 low-birthweight infants admitted to a hospital in Bangladesh. To enroll in the study, babies had to be born at less than 33 weeks' gestation and weigh less than 1,500 grams (about 3 pounds).
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