What is the history of using eye ointment in newborns?
The use of erythromycin eye ointment in newborns has its roots in the late 1800s. During that time period, approximately 10% of newborns born in maternity hospitals across Europe developed ophthalmia neonatorum (ON). This is a type of pink eye that caused blindness in 3% of infants who were affected (Schaller and Klauss 2001). This means that during the late 1800s, before antibiotics were discovered, 0.3% of infants (3 out of 1,000) were blinded from ON.
In 1881, a physician named Carl Crede realized that infants were catching ON during vaginal delivery, and that the infections were caused by gonorrhea—a sexually transmitted infection. Dr. Crede found that by putting silver nitrate in the eyes of newborn babies, he could prevent ON. In fact, the number of newborn ON infections in Dr. Crede’s hospital went from 30-35 cases per year to 1 case in the first six months he started using silver nitrate.
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