Thursday, December 01, 2011

Using Zinc to Stave Off Childhood Diarrhea in Developing Countries

Childhood diarrhea can be a tricky public health issue. Not only is it an unpleasant subject to discuss, but eradicating it, especially in poorer nations, can often mean expensive infrastructure projects and bigger battles than many strapped governments can take on.

A 10-day course of zinc tablets, however, promises to not only treat children who have diarrhea, but also to help protect them from future bouts with the condition (the most common side effect of the zinc being nausea). The challenge lies in getting parents and caretakers to give the treatment to their children—and health care providers to embrace it.

Zinc, a metallic element that is naturally present in many foods such as red meat and fish—more widely consumed in wealthier nations—is a co-factor in many different bodily enzymes. "We don't completely understand it," Winch says, but researchers do know that it is important for maintaining many enzymes that contribute to immune system support as well as maintaining skin and intestinal walls. Unlike iron, however, there are not many good, reliable tests for zinc levels, and people who are zinc deficient often don't look any different from those who are not, also unlike people who suffer from anemia, who can be pale and fatigued.

Zinc tablets can also satiate the perceived need for a drug-based treatment. Although widely used oral-rehydration therapies help children regain lost fluids, "people don't perceive it as a treatment," Winch says. "It's not a pill, [so] they're still on the lookout for a drug to take." Many caretakers will get antibiotics, which do not treat most types of typical diarrhea, and could contribute to antibiotic resistance, he says.

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