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Innovation saves lives: working in partnership to develop chlorhexidine gel

Veronica and her son Stephen at a health centre in Bungoma County, Kenya. At birth, Stephen was treated with life-saving chlorhexidine gel, developed by GSK in partnership with Save the Children. (Ilan Godfrey/Save the Children)


This blog post was written by Arabella Moore, Senior Account Manager, GSK Partnership.

Innovation – whether in development programmes or in research and development of new medicines – is hard to find. It’s even harder to achieve in a partnership to tackle humanitarian issues.

Which makes it all the more impressive that innovation is a fundamental aspect of Save the Children and GSK’s partnership – and our joint objective to improve children’s health. By thinking laterally and leveraging our core competencies, we came up with an innovative way to reach those who need it most.

Our journey to develop a chlorhexidine gel for newborn babies in remote communities began in response to a global challenge from the United Nations. The antiseptic ingredient, chlorhexidine, was identified by the UN as an overlooked ‘life-saving commodity’ that, if more widely accessed and properly used for umbilical cord care, could potentially save the lives of 400,000 babies over five years.

Three years later, GSK successfully reformulated the antiseptic solution used in its Corsodyl™ mouthwash into a gel (chlorhexidine), which is now being distributed to 21 health facilities in Kenya as part of an early access programme, supported by Save the Children and GSK.

From the lab to the field

The success of this partnership was achieved by combining Save the Children’s on-the-ground knowledge and insights with GSK’s capabilities in R&D to develop a gel with the toughest settings in mind. The gel that our partnership has developed is stable in high temperatures and packaged in single-use foil sachets, which can be opened without scissors.

Tight collaboration didn’t end in the lab. While other forms of chlorhexidine were registered in Kenya in 2015, it’s still not widely available for the millions of newborn babies in the country. So, as part of our ambition to increase access to essential medicines, we’ve been working closely with the Neonatal, Child and Adolescent Health Unit at national level and the Kenya Ministry of Health to bring early access to chlorhexidine to a controlled population in Bungoma County, in western Kenya.

As part of a wider maternal and newborn health programme, we’ve made sure chlorhexidine was distributed and integrated within other supporting activities, such as training health workers for its use, and creating education materials and information for local communities to encourage mothers to visit health facilities. Educating and engaging with communities has been vital, as it often involves encouraging mothers to move away from traditional practices, such as applying traditional herbs, black soot, soil, or lizard droppings onto the cord.

Save the Children and GSK worked closely together since 2015 in preparation for and during the roll-out of the programme. Fortnightly calls between GSK scientists and Save the Children colleagues in Kenya, USA and UK ensured we kept a close eye on all aspects of the pilot, from supply to feedback from communities.

From promise to proof

The programme has provided important evidence. We commissioned a third party to conduct a study of the programme so that we could get the hard facts on user preferences and acceptability, and on reactions from mothers, communities and healthcare workers.

Overall, the research found that nearly all mothers (99%) interviewed used the chlorhexidine sachets and found them easy to use. Over 90% said they would use them again. These findings point to the impact of our intervention and the meaningful change it has had. The evidence from the study can be used to help persuade other countries and other counties in Kenya to increase the availability of chlorhexidine.

In only one year, we’ve reached over 12,000 babies in those crucial first days of life – especially so in Kenya, where one in every 45 newborn babies dies.

We’re now looking to continue to work with the Kenyan Ministry of Health, in order to ensure that every child in Kenya can have access to this life-saving commodity, helping to give every child a better chance to survive.


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