February 6, 2008
Cheap dietary supplements could protect young children from malaria, research suggests.
The study, published in Nutrition Journal, found giving children vitamin A and zinc cut incidence of illness by a third.
Malaria remains a major killer in many parts of the world - in sub-Saharan Africa it is estimated to account for a million child deaths a year.
Resistance to drug treatments is an increasing problem.
And efforts to kill the infected mosquitoes that spread the disease have been hampered by the use of ineffective insecticides.
Many people living in malaria endemic areas suffer from malnutrition so researchers in Burkina Faso experimented with adding vitamin A and zinc supplements to the diets of children aged from six months to six years.
Half of the children were given a placebo. After six months the scientists observed a 34% decrease in incidence of malaria in those children taking the supplements.
Among those children who did catch the illness, those taking supplements were more resistant to the disease and suffered fewer fever episodes.
The researchers, from Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé, believe the combined supplements boosted the children's immune system, making them more naturally resistant to malaria.
They believe the supplements could be an effective long term strategy to reduce the impact of malaria.
Dr Ron Behrens, an expert in tropical diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said zinc supplementation had also been shown to have a positive impact on respiratory disease and cholera.
However, he said use of supplements might only work in communities with specific nutritional deficiencies - and those deficiencies might only exist at certain times of year.
For instance, vitamin A deficiency was a problem in West Africa during the rainy season, but not when palm oil was in plentiful supply.
Dr Behrens also warned that too much zinc could have a negative impact on the body's ability to make use of other minerals, such as copper and selenium.
Vitamin A in excess had been shown to be toxic, he said, causing brain swelling and other complications.
"Neither of these micro-nutrients is totally safe. They should be used like pharmaceuticals, and not seen as cure alls," he said.