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“This makes the need for disinfection and maintaining a protocol that ensures a clean, hygienic environment exceedingly important,” says Sankar. However, basic soap and water are lacking in half the healthcare facilities across the globe, according to a WHO/UNICEF report released in  in 2022, contributing to the risk of infections in mothers and newborns.

Other simple measures can help prevent infection in healthcare settings, such as wearing sterile gowns in intensive care units, swabbing and cleaning surfaces and equipment, and disinfecting the skin of the newborn before administering injections or drips. But it requires training and adequate staffing to implement them, alongside teaching good hygiene practices to parents, says Shahidullah.

Bangladesh is also aiming to encourage more women to give birth in hospitals – which despite their own superbug struggles, tend to be the safer option. Almost half of Bangladeshi women still give birth at home, which comes with a higher risk of contracting infections. In Nepal, neonatal sepsis was found to be higher among babies born to mothers who did not attend antenatal check-ups, again highlighting the importance of support for prospective parents.

Ultimately, tackling the drug resistance crisis will require a broad range of tools, experts say. 

“For more widespread change, we need to consider antimicrobial resistance as a socio-political challenge and not just a medical one,” says Abdul Ghafur, a consultant in infectious diseases at the Apollo Cancer Institute in the Southern Indian city of Chennai. Together with other Indian doctors, he is also a vocal campaigner on fighting the superbug threat. “Proper sanitation at home, in healthcare institutions and in communities is key to dealing with neonatal sepsis aggravated by [antimicrobial resistance] and to prevent re-infection in children.”

Finding new antibiotics should be seen as an immediate priority: “Covid has shown us that India can be the pharmacy of the world, and develop state-of-the-art drugs,” he says.

Ghafur suggests focusing on developing tests to identify the source of the infection as quickly as possible. “A rapid diagnostic test could help doctors zero in on the right antibiotic to prescribe within an hour, which could significantly lower the risk of death. New antibiotics and vaccines can be developed for bacteria that are now resistant to existing antibiotics,” he says. In his view this should be a global effort, with governments working together with private companies.

For families like Mukta’s, who lost her son to sepsis, these advances come too late. But tackling the antibiotics crisis, and the infection risk around birth, could help others give their babies a safe start – and help doctors protect and save those in their care.

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Neonatal sepsis: the new threat posed by superbugs

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