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ECUADOR: 40 Percent of Children Suffer Chronic Zinc Deficiency

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Aug 17 2011 (IPS) - The diets of people in Ecuador and other countries in South America’s Andean region suffer from chronic deficiency of zinc, a mineral essential to childhood nutrition, as demonstrated by studies led by paediatrician Dr. Fernando Sempértegui.

“World health organisations estimate that 40 percent of children in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia suffer from chronic zinc deficiency, which is related to chronic infections like pneumonia, the main cause of death among that population group,” Sempértegui told IPS.

Dietary deficiency of this key mineral “is also related to stunted growth,” the Ecuadorian doctor said. “If children do not receive enough zinc in the first years of life, they will have short stature as adults, and the situation is not reversible,” he added.

Studies carried out since 1992 by Sempértegui’s team have demonstrated the positive effects of zinc supplements in child nutrition.

He said he had detected a gap in a United Nations report on zinc that stated that the mineral boosted the immune systems of elderly adults, helping to prevent viral infections in that age group.

He and his team were surprised that the report did not refer to studies on the benefits of the mineral in children, especially malnourished children, he said.

So they decided to take on the challenge, and carried out an initial study among malnourished children in a child care centre in a poor neighbourhood in Quito known as the “Comité del Pueblo Número Uno”.

“The children were given zinc syrup, specially prepared for the study by the chemistry department at the Central University,” he said.

The study, which had the support of the National Institute of Children and Family (INNFA), showed that a 10-mg daily zinc supplement led to a decrease in respiratory infections in the study group and strengthened the children’s immune systems overall.

The four-month study, which was published in an international journal, became “the first study in the world to find that zinc reduced respiratory disease and improved immunity,” Sempértegui’said. “Ecuador became a reference point for research on this mineral about which little was known at the time.”

Zinc is found in foods like semi-refined wheat and barley flour, although zinc from plant sources is more difficult to absorb. For example, it is easier to absorb from cooked bran and wheat germ than raw.

“The best source of zinc is offal, like liver, and seafood,” the researcher said.

“The height of a child is determined in the first two or three years of life, by the quality of their diet, and zinc is an important part of the diet,” pediatric cardiologist Diego Dávalos told IPS.

“In the areas of Ecuador with the highest levels of child malnutrition, the problem isn’t hunger per se, but what is known as hidden hunger,” Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) expert Jorge Samaniego explained to IPS.

Rather than a lack of food, hidden hunger refers to a diet and eating habits that lead to a chronic lack of proteins and calories and crucial micronutrients, particularly B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, iron and zinc.

It is referred to as hidden because it often has no visible warning signs. But it can lead to growth stunting, mental impairment, poor health, and even death.

If the necessary proteins and micronutrients are made available and environmental problems are addressed – lack of clean water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene – young children can be put back on track of normal growth development.

But research shows that in people with inadequate dietary intake of zinc in the first two years of life, stunted growth is lasting, said several neonatologists and pediatricians who attended a recent congress on pediatrics organised by the Association of Private Clinics and Hospitals of Ecuador, where Sempértegui presented the results of his study.

Zinc deficiency directly inhibits the growth of cartilage in bone metabolism, while it is “calcium that makes bones strong,” he said.

Height is thus determined by good nutrition, including the intake of zinc, during the first two or three years of life.

The worst levels of chronic zinc deficiency are found in the country’s indigenous rural highlands communities, where up to 45 percent of children have insufficient zinc intake.

“Children who are not well-fed get more infections and are exposed to pneumonia, which affects their growth,” he said, explaining that a bout of pneumonia in children under two is equivalent to nearly one centimetre of lost growth.

That is because pneumonia is an acute infection that diverts proteins and molecules needed for growth towards combating the infection, preventing normal development.

The latest study conducted by Sempértegui and his team was carried out among 2,400 children in Quito, who received zinc and vitamin A supplements.

After monitoring the children for a year, the researchers found a reduction in respiratory disease and pneumonia, corroborating the results of the studies conducted since 1992.

At the congress of pediatrics, Sempértegui also reported a new finding: that the growth of children with pneumonia who did not receive zinc supplements was stunted, but that the growth of young pneumonia patients who did receive zinc was not affected.

However, children who were already malnourished did not enjoy that benefit.

This is a scientific breakthrough of enormous significance, the researcher said: zinc not only prevents respiratory infections but, when they do occur, such as in the case of severe pneumonia, also prevents growth retardation.

“This occurs because the mineral strengthens immunity and enables the child to successfully weather a pneumonia attack without having significant nutritional reserves drawn off to fight the infection,” which enables them to stay on a track of normal growth, he said in his presentation.

The ideal is for children over six months to receive a daily supplement of 10 mg of zinc, which is sufficient to maintain adequate reserves. And before the birth of the child, expectant mothers should also take 10 mg of zinc a day, from the first month of pregnancy.

If the mother receives enough zinc while she is nursing, her breast milk will have sufficient traces of the mineral for the growing child.

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