Wetenschap - 10 januari 2002

Vitamin does not make Indonesian mothers and children healthier

Vitamin does not make Indonesian mothers and children healthier

They spent two years sharing a house in the Indonesian countryside, fifty kilometres southwest of Bogor. Such conditions can make or break a friendship. Dutch Marjanka Schmidt and Indonesian Siti Muslimatun became friends.

The two researchers worked in total from 1997 to 2001 together studying Indonesian mothers and their newborn babies. They wanted to know if it was worthwhile giving pregnant women extra vitamin A. "Vitamin A is important for building up resistance to disease," explains Dr Marjanka Schmidt. "And it is important for physiological and mental growth processes." Scientists believe that more than a quarter of all infant deaths in the world are due to a shortage of vitamin A.

By giving pregnant women vitamin A, Schmidt and Muslimatun hoped to improve the health of both mothers and their babies. Schmidt: "There is already a programme in Indonesia in which pregnant women are given extra iron. The women receive about one hundred iron pills during their pregnancy. We investigated what the effect would be if vitamin A is added to these pills." Schmidt, who was working under the sub-department of Human Nutrition and Epidemiology at Wageningen University, studied the babies. Muslimatun concentrated on the mothers, and was based at the Indonesian training institute Seameo Tropmed.

The results were disappointing. "The mothers did show higher levels of vitamin A in their blood and in their milk," says Schmidt. "We found the same increase in the children's blood." However, despite these higher levels noimprovements in health were observed, either in the mothers or the babies. The vitamin did not increase the birthweight of the babies, nor did it speed up their growth rates.

"We suspect that the amount of vitamin A that this group received was already reasonably good," explains Schmidt. "And growth and development depend on more factors than just vitamin A." Nevertheless the researchers recommend that vitamin A be added to the iron pills. "Other studies have shown that it is worth giving vitamin A to pregnant women," says Schmidt. "Research carried out in Nepal has shown that the death rate decreases for pregnant women given extra vitamin A."

Willem Koert

Marjanka Schmidt, The role of maternal nutrition in growth and health of Indonesian infants: a focus on vitamin A and iron.

Siti Muslimatun, Nutrition of Indonesian women during pregnancy and lactation: a focus on vitamin A and iron.

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