Student - December 14, 2006

Cause of anaemia in Vietnam a mystery

A quarter of all schoolchildren in Vietnam suffer from anaemia, writes Le Thi Huong in her PhD thesis. She examined four hundred children aged between six and eight for her research, but the exact cause of the anaemia remains a mystery.

‘The children were suffering from mild anaemia,’ says Le Thi Huong’s supervisor, Dr Inge Brouwer of the Human Nutrition Group. ‘They don’t get quite enough iron, but the iron deficiency was not severe enough to explain the anaemia.’

At first the researchers thought that gut parasites were responsible: about three-quarters of the children had roundworms, and a similar percentage had whipworms. Only eight percent of the children had no gut parasites. ‘Intestinal parasites cause wounds in the gut wall and these reduce the absorption of iron,’ explains Brouwer. ‘They also cause bleeding, and therefore loss of iron. But getting rid of the parasites didn’t result in less anaemia.’

When the researchers analyzed the children’s blood, they found a relation between low levels of haemoglobin and high concentrations of the protein IgE. Haemoglobin is the form of iron that the human body uses, and a high level of IgE indicates the presence of infections in the body. ‘We suspect that the presence of the IgE indicates that the children have more infections that just those caused by the gut parasites,’ says Brouwer. ‘Other infections may be making the anaemia worse – we know that the presence of infections can lead to a reduction in the manufacture of haemoglobin.’

The researchers do not know what kind of infections are involved. Nevertheless, Le Thi Huong managed to reduce the anaemia by using enriched foods. Noodles with added iron brought the children’s haemoglobin levels back to normal./ Willem Koert

Le Thi Huong received her PhD on 12 December. Her promotor was Professor Frans Kok, chair of Nutrition and Health.