Laws governing the care of newborns abound. One of these measures is the requirement that an eye ointment be administered for the prevention of infantile blindness. Nearly every state generally requires this, and some penalize medical professionals or even parents for failure to comply.
Many states additionally require newborn eye infections to be reported to the county health officer, who in many cases is authorized to investigate and require treatment. Parents should be familiar with these laws and their rights about how to opt-out if they choose.
Nearly every state refers to these eye ointments as “prophylactic” or “prophylaxis,” which is simply a medical term meaning “preventative.” The ointment is designed to protect the eyes of babies from serious eye infections caused by gonorrhea and chlamydia. Mothers who have a sexually transmitted disease can transmit it to their newborns during birth, which the statutes generally refer to as “ophthalmia neonatorum,” or “neonatal conjunctivitis.” Left untreated, these conditions can result in permanent blindness.
The prophylactic eye ointments can be multiple substances. Originally, the most common of these was a solution with 1% silver nitrate. Silver nitrate is created by soaking silver in nitric acid, and it is used as a cauterizing agent in wound care. While silver nitrate is still the term used in many state laws, it is not generally used any longer because of its acidic nature. Now, the most commonly used eye prophylactic is the antibiotic erythromycin.
Nearly every state generally requires a birth attendant to administer the eye ointment within 1-2 hours of birth. Failure to do so is frequently a misdemeanor. In addition to these requirements, most states require health professionals and parents to report any eye infections discovered within 2 weeks of birth. The local health officer may have the authority to investigate these reports and compel treatment.
Heritage Defense does not take a position on the advisability or efficacy of these eye prophylactics. However, we support the right of parents to make medical decisions for their children based on an informed understanding of the medical procedure and the law.
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