Zinc supplements don't help healthy children

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Thursday 15 November 2007

zinc supplements are widely promoted only in the oral rehydration therapy to treat diarrhoea. Plans to use it as a general supplement, have suffered a setback with a new study proving that they wouldn't help healthy children.

Observing children who were given zinc supplements, us scientists found no significant differences in mortality rates, episodes of diarrhoea, dysentery and respiratory infections in the children.

James Tielsch and a team from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health studied 40,000 children aged 1-35 months in Sarlahi in southern Nepal for one year. Around half of them were given 10 mg of zinc supplement daily while the other half was given placebo. The findings published in The Lancet (Vol 370, No 9594) are significant to India as well since the research area is located close to India and is representative of the social and ecological characteristics of the subcontinent.

The results are important given the efforts to introduce zinc as a common supplement in India. In 2000, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and Delhi Municipal Corporation started a programme in the capital by providing zinc tablets to around 100,000 children. The results of the study are not as yet available.

The debate on the benefits of using zinc as universal supplement continues, however. "Zinc needs can be met if people get sufficient food which is often not the case here," says Veena Shatrugna, National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad. Only meat is a good source of this essential micronutrient.

In the context of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare's plans to provide zinc as part of the diarrhoea treatment programme by the end of the year, public health experts fear that the supplement could overtake the rehydration therapy itself. Rajiv Tandon, member of India's zinc technical advisory group says, "The programme will be rolled out in an appropriate manner to ensure that the focus still remains on oral rehydration."

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