Zinc deficiency is one of the most prevalent risk factors
for nutrient-related diseases, and young children in developing countries are
at highest risk of zinc deficiency because of inadequate dietary intake. As
zinc is essential to most cells involved in immune function, its deficiency can
decrease immunocompetence, and therefore leaves children in particular
susceptible to infections.
Respiratory infections such as pneumonia are one of the
leading causes of child and infant death, and more than 2 million children
under the age of 5 die from pneumonia every year. There is a need for integrated child survival
programmes particularly in the developing world, where other diseases such as
HIV/AIDS also threaten the survival of children. In view of this, UNICEF and
WHO have launched a Global Action Plan
which provides strategies for the prevention and control of pneumonia in
community settings in the developing world.
Towards this goal, a new study published in BMC Medicine
reports that providing zinc supplements in addition to standard antibiotics to
children suffering from severe pneumonia can drastically improve the chances of
survival. This double-blind randomised, placebo-controlled
trial led by Prof James Tumwine from Makerere University in Uganda reports that
even though there was no difference in the recovery time between the zinc and
placebo groups, the risk of death between the two groups was significantly
different. 4% of the children taking zinc supplements died compared to 12% of
the children who did not receive zinc. The increase in survival was even
greater for HIV infected children with severe pneumonia, where 26 out of every
100 children could be saved by treatment with zinc in addition to antibiotics.
This promising study highlights how a simple, affordable
intervention can substantially reduce mortality rates in vulnerable children
from the developing world, and highlights the need to consider similar
treatments to prevent further avoidable deaths.