It may be possible to prevent babies from getting eczema—a costly, inflammatory skin disorder—just by applying something as inexpensive as petroleum jelly every day for the first six months of life.
A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics shows that seven common moisturizers could inexpensively prevent eczema in high-risk newborns. By using the cheapest moisturizer in the study (petroleum jelly), the cost benefit for prophylactic moisturization was only $353 per quality-adjusted life year—a generic measure of disease burden that assesses the monetary value of medical interventions in one’s life.
Eczema affects as many as 20 percent of children and costs the US healthcare system as much as $3.8 billion dollars every year. Previous studies have shown that families caring for a child with the skin disorder can spend as much as 35 percent of their discretionary income—an average of $274 per month.
“It’s not only terrible for the kids, but also for their families,” says Steve Xu, a resident physician in dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Eczema can be devastating.
“Beyond the intractable itch, a higher risk of infections, and sleep problems, a child with eczema means missed time from school, missed time from work for parents, and huge out-of-pocket expenses. So if we can prevent that with a cheap moisturizer, we should be doing it.”
Early studies from Japan, the US and the UK have suggested that full-body application of moisturizers for six to eight months, beginning within the first few weeks of life, can reduce the risk that eczema will develop. The new study took that one step further and examined the cost-effectiveness of seven common, over-the-counter moisturizer products, such as petroleum jelly, Aquaphor, Cetaphil, and Aveeno.
“There’s an important economic argument to be made here,” Xu says. “Moisturizers are an important intervention dermatologists use to treat eczema. They play a big role in getting our patients better. But insurers do not usually cover the cost of moisturizers. We’re arguing for their inclusion in health insurance coverage.”
While the evidence on prophylactic moisturization is preliminary, Xu says, “We’re not giving them an oral drug or injecting them with a medication; there is minimal risk. We’re putting Vaseline on these babies to potentially prevent a very devastating disease.”