Public Release: 

Zinc deficiency an underestimated problem

Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

Children in Java have better resistance to disease if they take not only vitamin A and iron supplements but also extra zinc. NWO nutrition researchers have shown that shortages of vitamin A and the two minerals often occur together. Zinc deficiency appears to be a problem which has so far not been fully recognised.

Indonesian children currently receive vitamin A supplements, and pregnant women are given extra iron and folic acid. This is insufficient, and much too one-sided, according to the nutritionists, who say that it would be more effective to provide the three supplements in combination. Up to now, little attention has been paid to the body's zinc requirement because it is difficult to measure zinc levels in the blood.

The NWO team presented their findings at a congress in Wageningen in mid-June which was devoted entirely to the effects of zinc deficiency during pregnancy. They have discovered that the immune system of young children shows a clear reaction to shortages of one of the three substances. Nutrition experts already knew that iron was necessary for effective resistance to disease. Research has shown that zinc deficiency leads to a reduction in the number of white blood cells and that a lack of vitamin A weakens the cell's immune response. Children probably have better resistance to disease if they consume enough iron, zinc and vitamin A.

It is vital for the health of new-born babies that their mothers receive the three nutritional supplements during pregnancy, but with betacarotene instead of vitamin A. Vitamin A should be avoided during pregnancy. Measured at the age of six months, the children of women who have received the three supplements are less prone to deficiencies. They receive a supply from their mother when they are born and her milk also appears to provide all three substances.

Zinc deficiency in developing countries is often due to the same causes as iron deficiency. It is the result of one-sided nutrition consisting of cereals, pulses and vegetables, without animal products. This type of diet contains a lot of phytates which bind iron and zinc and make it difficult for the blood to absorb them. Half of all pregnant women in developing countries suffer from anaemia because of a deficiency of iron. The NWO study indicates that a shortage of zinc might be just as common.

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