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Zinc supplements may boost immune system in children, says Cochrane Review

By Stephen Daniells+

15-May-2014
Last updated on 15-May-2014 at 15:14 GMT

Zinc supplements may boost immune system in children, says Cochrane Review

Supplements of zinc may reduce diarrhea and other infections in malnourished children, according to a new review published in the prestigious Cochrane Library.

The micronutrient was also associated with a lower risk of mortality due to diarrhea, lower respiratory tract infection, or malaria, report the authors led by Professor Zulfiqar Bhutta from the Center of Excellence in Women and Child Health, Aga Khan University, Karachi, Pakistan, and Sick Kids Center for Global Child Health, Toronto, Canada.

“Policymakers in low and middle income countries need evidence that directly addresses the needs of their own health services,” said Dr David Tovey, Editor-in-Chief, Cochrane. “This comprehensive review makes a very valuable contribution to the evidence base around interventions may make an important contribution to improving Global Health.”

Zinc deficiency

Zinc deficiency is reported to affect about 30 % of the world’s population. The human body cannot make it, so it has to come from our diet.

It is estimated that more than 1 in 6 people globally are deficient in zinc and that around 1 in every 58 deaths in children under five is related to zinc deficiency. Zinc deficiency is common in Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America.

According to the WHO and UNICEF, widespread use of zinc supplements in combination with oral rehydration salt (ORS) may prevent up to 88% of the 1.5 million children who die worldwide from diarrhea.

SPINS data shows zinc supplements were worth about $21m in the year 2012-13 in the US. The health benefits of zinc are well established, with the micronutrient having an impressive 18 approved claims under European Union’s super-strict nutrition and health claims regulation (NHCR), ranging from immunity to skin health to the maintenance of healthy vision.

The immune-boosting benefits of zinc have been reported numerous times, with another review published by the Cochrane Collaboration supporting its role in reducing the symptoms of the common cold.

Study details

Prof Bhutta and his co-workers reviewed data from 80 trials involving 205,401 children aged six months to twelve years, mostly in low and middle income countries. Overall, they concluded that zinc supplementation could benefit children as part of wider program to address public health and nutrition challenges in these countries.

Children who took zinc were less likely to suffer a bout of diarrhea, they reported, and the micronutrient was also associated with children being slightly taller by the end of the trials compared to children not taking the supplements.

“We should remember that supplements are not a substitute for a well-balanced diet,” said Prof Bhutta. “However, in countries where zinc deficiency is common, supplements may help to reduce child deaths and related diseases in the short-term.”

Although zinc supplements were associated with an increase in vomiting, the researchers think that overall the benefits of giving zinc outweigh the harms.

Source: The Cochrane Library
Published online, doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009384.pub2
“Zinc supplementation for preventing mortality, morbidity, and growth failure in children aged 6 months to 12 years of age”
Authors: E. Mayo-Wilson, J.A. Junior, A. Imdad, S. Dean, X.H.S. Chan, E.S. Chan, A. Jaswal, Z.A. Bhutta

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