New project to curb children’s diarrhea with zinc

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Probiotic

A new program launched this week aims to help reduce severe diarrhea in children via dietary supplementation with zinc.

The humanitarian project, which will begin in Kenya before expanding worldwide, is being coordinated by Vitamin Angels, a non-profit group that has come to be known as the humanitarian arm of the supplements industry.

Part of the group’s Thrive to Five initiative, the zinc program will deliver zinc supplements to children affected with diarrhea under the age of five in Kenya’s Sauri, Dertu and Eldoret.

Industry sponsors include Novus International, an animal feed firm that recently expanded its scope into the human supplement, food and beverage ingredient market.

Diarrhea is a common condition that causes an average of 2.4 million doctor's visits in the US each year. However, children younger than the age of five and the elderly can develop severe health problems if diarrhea leads to dehydration. And the condition often leads to the death of children affected by malnutrition, whose immune system lacks certain essential micronutrients.

Zinc is one of the most plentiful trace elements in the body, second only to iron. It mediates many physiological functions and is believed to be essential for maintaining a healthy immune system.

"The research on zinc is quite compelling,"​ said Howard Schiffer, founder of Vitamin Angels. "When added to an Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT) regimen, zinc will increase the effectiveness by up to 90 percent. ORT was a huge breakthrough in the past few decades in reducing infant and child mortality rates caused by diarrhea."

Nutrition and diarrhea

One of the most recent papers on the benefits of zinc for diarrhea was published last year in the journal Pediatrics​ (February 2008, doi:10.1542/peds.2007-0921). This found that zinc supplements could reduce the risk of getting diarrhea in children by around 18 percent.

The paper, which was a meta-analysis of 22 studies involving 17,000 children, also found that zinc supplements could reduce duration of diarrhea by around 15 percent.

Other nutritional appraoches to curbing diarrhea have also been examined of late. For example, a study published in the open access journal BMC Microbiology​ found that supplements of Lactobacillus rhamnosus​ GG probiotic bacteria could protect against gastro-intestinal infection and diarrhea in infants.

The study was conducted in animals and showed that 59 per cent of animal subjects did not develop rotaviral diarrhoea when the probiotic was administered before infection with rotavirus.

In addition, researchers from Taiwan's China Medical University reported that the popular spice ginger has potential as a herbal supplement against bacteria-induced diarrhoea.

The researchers considered the effects of ginger and its bioactive components for their ability to inhibit the binding of a toxin from the bacteria E. coli (heat-labile enterotoxin, LT) to specific receptors on cells in a mouse intestine (GM1 receptors) that initiate a cascade of events resulting in diarrhoea (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry​, doi: 10.1021/jf071460f).

Reaching children

The Vitamin Angels zinc program will be launched on Friday during the group’s 2009 Celebration of Angels Event at the Natural Products Expo East tradeshow in Boston.

Schiffer explained that the target population of the initiative are "the children who are not being reached by anyone else in rural Kenya​".

"These children are part of the Millennium Villages projects in Dertu and Sauri where we will be providing enough zinc for 25,000 children. Initially we will be distributing about 250,000 zinc tablets,"​ he told NutraIngredients-USA.com.

The initial project in Kenya is being designed to be scaled up to become a global initiative, he said.

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