Pediatricians in Canada say that the antibiotic ointment that is applied to infants’ eyes as standard care in order to prevent contracting a “sexually transmitted” bacterial infection from the mother is ineffective.  The protocol has been used to ensure that infants do not end up with what is called “neonatal opthalmia” or “ophthalmia-neonatorum” from chlamydia and/or gonorrhea.

In parts of Canada, the antibiotic ointment is required by laws, only those laws, according to the Canadian Pediatric Society stem back to the 1800’s when silver nitrate was used in babies’ eyes. This was before the era of antibiotics. Eventually instead of silver nitrate, doctors began using erythromycin. It is the only antibiotic ointment that is available for using on infants fresh out of the womb, according to the association of pediatricians. Canadian doctors say that erythromyacin ointment won’t prevent infection from chlamydia anymore because of antibiotic resistance, and the chances of getting an eye infection from gonorrhea in Canada is exceedingly rare.

The Canadian Pediatric Society has recently published a position statement denouncing the practice of using antibiotics on the eye of infants.

“Applying medication to the eyes of newborns may result in mild eye irritation and has been perceived by some parents as interfering with mother-infant bonding. Physicians caring for newborns should advocate for rescinding mandatory ocular prophylaxis laws.”

The pediatric association says that it makes more sense to simply screen mothers for these infections and move forward from there with treatment if a woman is found to be infected. They can even be screened at delivery. They say that if a baby is born of a mother with a gonococcal infection should be given a third-generation cephalosporin antibiotic called ceftriaxone. If a baby is born of a mother with chlamydia infection, the baby should simply be monitored. A lead author on the statement, Dr. Noni MacDonald, told CBC News:

“The health-care professional’s caught in the middle of this. They don’t actually think this is a good idea to do because it doesn’t work, but the law says they have to do it.”

Denmark, Norway, the UK and Sweden reportedly all stopped using the antibiotic drops decades ago. In the United States, the antibiotic eye ointment treatment is also standard care. According to the Times Free Press, Erlanger Health Systems, for example, require nurses to put antibiotic ointment into newborns’ eyes no matter what “even if it means calling security to intervene if parents object.” Meanwhile, in events surrounding that hospital’s policy, a debate is raging, as the Times Free Press reported this week. Similar policies are enforced in other U.S. hospitals.

If the United States’ northern neighbor changes their policy and pediatricians stop the practice of giving newborns antibiotic ointment, do you think that policies will change in the United States?