Giving To Those In Need

September 15, 2009
Shazia Haq

In areas where children severely lack access to proper nutrition, nutritional supplements are considered by some as a necessary fix. The Talas province in Kyrgyzstan is one such example. In this province, 70% of the children tested positive for anemia at the end of 2008, according to UNICEF. Residents in the Talas province also have the highest level of stunted growth in the world, at 27.3% of the total population.

High occurances of anemia and stunted growth indicate a lack of vitamins and micronutrients in the area's food, says Timothy Shaffter, head of the UNICEF office in Kyrgyzstan. According to Shaffter, these conditions can lead to congenital malformation, problems in physical and intellectual development, and higher susceptibility to contagious and parasitic diseases.

To help solve the problems of malnourishment, Kyrgyzstan's Ministry of Health, in close cooperation with UNICEF, started distributing the nutritional supplement Gulazyk to residents. The effects were immediate, and the region's anemia rate dropped dramatically.

In places such as Kyrgyzstan, where basic, nutrient-filled food is scarce, it is undeniable that supplementation's positive effects have been felt.

As another example, in recent years, a handful of aid organizations and governments, including the United States Agency for International Development and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have begun distributing zinc supplements to villagers in Bangladesh, India, Mali, and Pakistan, in order to halt occurances of diarrhea. Several other groups are working with governments in Africa to introduce zinc, which comes both in tablet and syrup forms.

So far, the impact of the zinc programs has been dramatic. Compared with options such as oral-rehydration therapy, which is extremely effective in replacing fluids and nutrients but offers no quick end to conditions such as diarrhea, zinc pills appear to halt diarrhea in its tracks. And it is also a cost-effective means of treating nutrient problems.

In parts of the world, children with diarrhea can now be treated with zinc supplements for as little as 30 cents per supplement.

In the May 13 edition of The New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof painted a very favorable portrait of another type of supplement for children-vitamin A. After visiting a town in northern Guinea, Kristof had this to say about vitamin A supplementation:

"Americans pretty much take vitamin A for granted, but many of the world's poorest people lack it," he wrote. "And as a result, it is estimated that more than half-a-million children die or go blind each year."

According to the United Nations, half of the children in many African countries are deficient in vitamin A. A disease such as measles will quickly deplete vitamin A supply further and trigger blindness, Kristof wrote. In fact, vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in children in the world today. It is also one of the most easily curable deficits.

The simple fix, Kristof said, is to give vitamin A–deficient children vitamin A capsules, which cost "about 2 cents each."

Kristof continued, "[It has been] found that vitamin A supplements reduce not only blindness, but also death from diarrhea and other diseases. A review by Helen Keller International reports that in areas such as West Africa, where many children lack the vitamin, child mortality [rates] drop by approximately 23% after vitamin A capsules are distributed to children."

In America, the debate over whether to give children vitamin supplements has been contentious. "This is mainly because in westernized countries, children are receiving fortified foods that contain essential nutrients from the beginning," says Diana Chang, MD, a family practitioner based in Los Angeles.

Chang continues, "Every possible food product [in America] has been infused with vitamins, so there's not as much of a requirement to supplement if children are already eating well. But I see no harm in parents giving their kids supplements, when it is done vigilantly and is combined with a nutritious diet."

The simple fix, Kristof said, is to give vitamin A–deficient children vitamin A capsules, which cost "about 2 cents each."

Regulatory Concerns

In the United States, the trend toward marketing herbs and other nontraditional dietary supplements for children is increasing. These products are being advertised for maintaining kids' health, as well as for treating their ailments. In light of growing popularity of children's supplements, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has raised objections.

"We're very concerned about how some of these products are being portrayed in advertisements," says Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "There are many worrisome, unfounded claims. A lot of these products have not been proven to provide any benefit, and in some cases, may even present safety risks."

The FTC has noted an increase in dietary supplement advertising that promotes products as preventing or curing a variety of childhood ailments, ranging from colds and ear infections to serious conditions such as asthma and chronic bronchitis.

BARE NECESSITIES

Natasha Turner, ND, vice president of Natural Medicine with Truestar Health (Ontario, Canada), provides her choices of the most important and commonly used supplements for children. "Proper diet and nutritional supplements may benefit children of all ages by boosting immunity and optimizing health," Turner says. "Parents should be responsible and give children only what's necessary."

Multivitamins
A full-spectrum multivitamin and mineral product in a highly absorbable form is essential to ensure the foundation of health. Vitamins and minerals are necessary for proper growth, metabolism, digestion, immune system function, muscle and nerve function, and detoxification processes in the liver. A daily multivitamin can help to keep a child's energy and concentration levels at their best, says Turner.

Acidophilus
Acidophilus is the friendly bacteria that live in the human digestive tract. Healthy bacterial balance in our digestive tract is easily affected by poor dietary habits and by the use of medications such as corticosteroids and antibiotics, says Turner. Acidophilus has also been found to be useful in the treatment and prevention of skin conditions and allergies. Children in daycare who take acidophilus supplements are found to have less-frequent colds and flu and ear infections.

Vitamin C With Bioflavonoids
Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant and a natural antihistamine. It also helps speed wound healing. Vitamin C's immune-enhancing effect makes it essential in preventing infection as well as in shortening the duration of an illness. To maximize effectiveness, vitamin C is best taken with bioflavonoids in divided dosages spaced throughout the day. Vitamin C may act as a natural laxative in certain individuals, so Turner warns to increase the dose slowly, and recommends chewables.

EPA/DHA Fish Oils
Healthy types of oils are necessary in the formation of every cell in the body. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are natural antiinflammatory agents. Their antiinflammatory action makes them useful in treating and preventing heart disease. They also have beneficial effects on cholesterol, triglycerides, and on the tendency of blood to clot.

Zinc Citrate
Research has found that many children and young adults with ADHD/ADD are deficient in zinc. Zinc is found in the brain's hippocampus and interacts with other chemicals to send messages to the sensory brain center, enhancing memory and thinking skills. It has a significant effect on visual memory, learning, emotional and behavioral state, and overall cognitive function. A deficiency may result in learning impairments, poor memory, and emotional and behavioral problems.

Quercetin
A flavonoid compound from apples and onions, quercetin has natural antihistamine and antiinflammatory properties. Quercetin is best taken with vitamin C mixed with bioflavonoids, as this improves the antihistamine effect. Vitamin C alone may also have beneficial effects on histamine levels by preventing histamine release from cells and by improving the breakdown of histamine.

In the past two years, the commission has taken action against several marketers of kids' supplements for making unsubstantiated advertising claims. These marketers touted their products as safe, effective treatments for colds in children and attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders that affect as many as 2.5 million school-aged kids in the United States.

"Our concern with these claims is that parents fall for the products and ignore proven, perhaps essential, treatments for their child's disorder," Bernstein says. Though the marketers charged in these cases agreed to stop making fraudulent claims, there's no guarantee that similarly egregious claims about certain supplements for kids will not surface in the marketplace. Says Bernstein, "The bottom line for parents is to exercise caution in giving supplements to kids."

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