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Supplements can help cut 3.5m infant deaths, report finds

By Alex McNally , 18-Jan-2008

Vitamin A supplementation, zinc fortification and improved breast feeding could help save the lives of 3.5 million children who die from undernutrition, a major study on infant nutrition has found.

In a series of articles published in The Lancet, researchers said appropriate counselling on breastfeeding and a push by national governments to draw up nutrition intervention plans could help save millions of lives. The situation also throws the gauntlet down to industry to develop formulas that address the nutritional imbalance, and work together with governments to provide much needed relief. "Undernutrition is the largely preventable cause of over a third of all child deaths. Stunting, severe wasting and intrauterine growth restrictions are among the most important problems," Lancet editor Dr Richard Horton said. The countries in most immediate need of action included Burma, Uganda, India, China and South Africa. The team reviewed a range of interventions that can be used to address maternal and child undernutrition across 36 countries, and judged which methods worked the best. According to their findings, one of the common problems of under nutrition is stunted growth. They said 178m under fives, mostly from the Sub-Saharan Africa and south-central Asia, are stunted. The first two to three years of a child's life when it comes to nutrition are the most important. Stunting, for example, is difficult to reverse after the age of three. Pregnancy Scientists said supplementing pregnant women with calcium, iron and folic acid during pregnancy could prevent around 100,000 maternal deaths. Among the results, they also found supplementing pregnant women with iron folate increase blood haemoglobin levels, which decreases the risk of death for women who haemorrhage in pregnancy. Supplementation with a complex of micronutrients helped bolster birthweight, they found. However, nutrition strategies on their own are not enough, the authors said, adding: "Although available interventions can make a clear difference in the short term, elimination of stunting will require long-term investments to improve education, economic status and empowerment of women." The case for industry helping to boost breastfeeding is not straightforward. Rules drawn up by the World Health Organisation are designed to allow a certain degree of charitable help, but are also there to stop companies profiteering. Nestle came under fire from lobbyists at Baby Milk Action for supplying wristbands to children in Chinese hospitals emblazoned with the company's logo. Campaigners argued this was against the WHO code, but Nestle defended the move and said it was allowed to donate equipment and materials to healthcare systems "with a company's name and logo - but not with a formula product name or brand." Source: The Lancet Maternal and child undernutrition: an urgent opportunity January 17, 2008-01-18 Authors: Zulfiqar Bhutta, Tahmeed Ahmed, Robert Black, et al.

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