Women in rural Kenya have been encouraged to shun old habits and use antiseptics on the umbilical cord

Issued on: 07/11/2021 – 11:36 amChanged: 07/11/2021 – 11:40 AM

Healthcare professionals are promoting a new method of umbilical cord care by using chlorhexidine jelly in newborns to lower the infant mortality rate in western Kenya.

Communities in and around the region have used traditional umbilical cord care methods on babies, including applying ashes, cow dung, lizard droppings, mud, and even kitchen soot to the umbilical cord.

Some people tie a piece of cloth to the string. However, this traditional method delays healing.

Using chlorhexidine jelly, an antiseptic, protects newborns from sepsis and other infections, which are a major cause of newborn death within the first two weeks.

During pregnancy, the umbilical cord provides nutrients and oxygen to the developing baby.

After the birth, the umbilical cord is no longer needed, it is clamped and cut. This leaves a short stump. The baby’s umbilical cord stump then dries out and eventually falls off.

“I smeared soot on the umbilical cord of my first six children. I did this because my grandmother showed me, ”said Beatrice Akuku, a mother of seven.

“When used, it can take two weeks to heal, and that’s a long time,” she added.

She noticed the healing time difference between the soot and the chlorhexidine jelly in her seventh child – the jelly dried the umbilical cord within a week.

Jackline Cherotich, a mother of four, said her grandmother taught her to tie a cloth or put soft mud on the umbilical cord.

“I started using the modern method on my third child after the birth at the Nangina pharmacy, which only took a week for the umbilical cord to recover,” said Cherotich.

Data from the Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS) shows that at least one in 45 children born in Kenya dies before their fifth birthday. The under-five mortality rate is 22 deaths per 1,000 births.

Hospitals are far away

Located near the border between Kenya and Uganda, the village of Bunandi in Busia County is trying to teach mothers how to take care of their newborn’s umbilical cord.

“My colleagues used soot and cow dung, but few of us realized that children could get into trouble, so we stopped using salty water but continued to use it for a long time,” said Magrate Nabwire, one of the few remaining midwives in Bulandi .

“Everything is normal these days because there are hospitals. In our time there were no hospitals, we could walk hundreds of kilometers to the cities of Busia or Kisumu for medical help because there were no vehicles, ”recalls Nabwire.


Villagers complain that the lack of hospitals is the main reason many women in western Kenya are still adopting traditional methods of treating a healing umbilical cord.

However, with the help of community health workers, residents of this area are now receiving umbilical cord care and other medical services in their homes.

Roselyne Makokha, a volunteer health worker with the Bunandi community, has trained women on how to use chlorhexidine jelly on their newborns at home. She blames the local culture and religious beliefs for traditional practices.

“Women used to use traditional medication to heal the umbilical cord because culture and religion had forbidden it, but now the world has changed. I appeal to women to give birth in the hospital. Those days of home birth are over,” said Makokha.

At the North Hospital in Teso, Tezra Okal, the head nurse in the maternity ward, firmly believes in the antiseptic jelly.

Immediately after the birth, we apply chlorhexidine jelly from the umbilical cord in the delivery room. It is used once a day until the umbilical cord falls off, or for at least seven days, ”explains Okal.

Nursing staff shows new mothers how to apply the jelly to their babies’ umbilical cord.

Despite the traditions in this region, says Okal, many residents use the new method.

“We have had many cases of umbilical cord neonatal sepsis. When chlorhexidine was first introduced, it was shown to reduce umbilical cord infection by about 68 percent, ”said David Githinji, a medical project leader at Save the Children.

The group, which works with the Kenyan government, says 30,000 children in western Kenya have benefited from this treatment and plans to roll out the program nationwide within the next five years.

In addition to Kenya, countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda have also started adopting this new method of umbilical cord care for newborns in order to contain neonatal sepsis cases on the continent.

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