The trial took place in three hospitals in New Delhi among infants between 7 and 120 days old who were suffering from serious bacterial infections. As well as being prescribed antibiotics, a randomised trial of giving the infants zinc or a placebo was used to see whether there would be any effect on recovery. The study found that there were significantly fewer treatment failures among the group of children given the zinc, than among those receiving the placebo.
Many seriously ill infants admitted to hospitals in India are underweight from malnutrition. Additionally, infants often suffer from a chronic deficiency in micronutrients. Healthy eating not only requires the intake of enough food, but also food which contains the right vitamins and minerals, or micronutrients. Without elements such as iron, iodine, Vitamin A, folic acid and zinc, children are more prone to illness and recovery can be harder. Health experts believe deficiencies in micronutrients present the greatest threat to the physical and mental wellbeing of young children in many countries around the world today.
The proof that zinc could aid infant survival from infections (though more research is needed) is important news for the medical community. One of the study’s lead investigators from the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute and All India Institute of Medical Sciences told the news agency IRIN, “even mild [zinc] deficiency can compromise a child’s immunity”. He explained that with a weakened immune system, infants are much less likely to respond to first-line treatments for illnesses such as meningitis, pneumonia or sepsis (blood poisoning). Of the infants suffering from these conditions, 40% fewer experienced a ‘treatment failure’ when given zinc and therefore needed no second antibiotic intervention or intensive care, which even then cannot always prevent death.
Previous research into zinc deficiency has focused on children at least six months old, so the findings of this study could have a huge impact. In 2010, almost a quarter of global child deaths under the age of five happened during the first 28 days of life and many of these were from illnesses such as pneumonia and meningitis. With the new findings, it’s likely many more countries will adopt policies which include zinc in treatments for very sick children, hopefully saving many more lives.