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Zinc - a Silver Bullet?
Ethan Zuckerman, 23 Aug 05

Childhood diarrhoea kills roughly 2 million children under age 5 each year. Pneumonia kills an additional 2 million. A recent study in The Lancet (free registration required) suggests that there's a simple, inexpensive technique that could radically reduce deaths due to these diseases: weekly doses of zinc.

Bangladeshi doctors recruited 1600 poor, urban children between two and twelve months old; half received a weekly 70mg dose of zinc, the others, a placebo. Of the 800 infants receiving a placebo, over the course of 10 months, 14 died of diarrhoea and 10 of pneumonia; in the group receiving zinc, two died of diarrhoea and none of pnuemonia.

Scientists believe that zinc deficiencies lead to a wide set of cellular, immunal and hormonal problems that adversely affect children. Zinc deficiencies are frequently found in children whose diets are primarily based on unrefined grains and have little animal protein.

Given the remarkable efficacy of zinc supplements in the Bangladeshi study and the low cost of the treatment (approximately $0.02 for a weekly dose when imported from a European manufacturer, possibly half that if tablets are manufactured locally), the challenge appears to be getting tablets to mothers in nations that lack strong healthcare systems. Projects like SUZY (Scaling Up Zinc treatment for Youth in Bangladesh) believe they could save 30,000 to 75,000 lives a year in Bangladesh alone by producing zinc tablets locally, launching a major mass marketing campaign and distributing tablets through village health workers.

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This isn't meant to be a troll, per-se, but do we really want to be saving *more* children in a country already overrun with rampant over-population? I'm all for medical advances that can save lives, especially ones that are relatively simple, painless, and -- best of all -- cheap, but why not double the cost of distribution and include a free condom with the purchase of every week's worth of zinc pills...?

Posted by: AC on 23 Aug 05

AC - Yes, I think we absolutely do want to be saving the lives of children in countries like Bangladesh, not only because it's the morally right thing to do, but because high childhood mortality appears to be a major factor in parental decisionmaking regarding reproductive choice.

If you're in a country that has little or no government welfare (and there are few pension plans for subsistence farmers), your children become your retirement plan. If there's a high chance your offspring are going to die in childhood, the rational decision is to have more offspring. Reduce childhood mortality while addressing other economic issues and there's a good chance mothers will choose to have fewer children.

By the way, the health workers in Bangladesh who are being asked to distribute these pills already distribute birth control, including condoms.

Posted by: EthanZ on 23 Aug 05



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