Giving zinc to newborns being treated with antibiotics for serious infections appears to save lives, according to a new study done in India.
The study, published online in The Lancet last week, compared more than 700 infants under 4 months old who had pneumonia, meningitis or sepsis; half got zinc and half got placebo. The zinc group had 40 percent less “treatment failure,” by which the authors meant anything from death to a decision to switch antibiotics because standard ones were not working. Seventeen children in the placebo group died; only 10 who got zinc did.
The study is “a major finding” but should be replicated before global policy is changed, said Dr. Robert E. Black, an expert in zinc supplementation at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who was not involved in the study.
Why zinc seems to help cure infections, diarrhea and pneumonia in zinc-deficient children is unknown, Dr. Black said. Zinc may work very differently when given briefly to dangerously ill children rather than as a supplement given regularly to healthy ones.
Vegetarian diets, like those of Hindus, are often zinc-deficient, Dr. Black said, but so are those of many malnourished children. Breast milk — even from zinc-deficient mothers — contains zinc, though it depletes the mother’s reserves. But when rice or wheat gruel is added to a baby’s diet, he said, phytates in the grain may block zinc absorption.