Will zinc pills prevail where development fails?
Thirty-five international zinc experts gathered in Wageningen this week to discuss ten studies on the effects of zinc on pregnant women and their children. Three of the studies were carried out by Wageningen PhD researchers. The workshop 'Public Health Importance of Maternal Zinc Deficiency' will probably result in a review article, in which not only the potential benefits of zinc supplements for pregnant women will be outlined, but also where research is still required.
One of the studies that was discussed by the participants is the PhD thesis of Dr Saskia Osendarp. She examined the effect of zinc supplements on pregnant women in Bangladesh, and discovered that this did nothing to prevent half of the babies being born with a low birthweight, but that it did improve the resistance of the babies to infection. However, giving zinc supplements to newborn babies does not help. "Other studies also came up with similar conclusions," said Osendarp who was present at the workshop. "We don't yet know why this is." One theory is that enzymes are needed to make the zinc work, and babies do not make the enzymes themselves.
Most of the research results discussed at the workshop are positive, and some of the researchers are in favour of zinc supplements. However, some research has uncovered less positive aspects, which has made some researchers hesitant. By the age of one Osendarp's zinc babies were behind in their development. "The difference was small, but it was statistically significant," she comments.
The United Nations children's organisation Unicef, which was represented at the workshop, will be interested in the results. Unicef supports the idea of giving vitamin and mineral supplements containing zinc to all pregnant women in developing countries. Unicef has developed a supplement together with a pharmaceutical company, and tests on its effectiveness are already under way.