A study funded by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and published in The Lancet on Thursday that shows a 43 per cent reduction in mortality among babies suffering from bacterial sepsis when administered zinc along with standard antibiotics,could have huge implications for Indias infant mortality rate (IMR) figures.
Of the one million neonatal deaths that occur in India every year,more than a quarter are attributed to serious bacterial infections such as pneumonia,sepsis and meningitis. As an agent that in some way increases antibiotic efficacy,zinc can be a potent ally in the countrys fight against drug resistance.
The study conducted on 700 children admitted to the AIIMS,Kalawati Saran Childrens Hospital and Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital found that significantly fewer treatment failures occurred in the Zn group (352 infants) against the placebo group (348). Researchers have concluded that zinc treatment prevented one treatment failure for every infant it is administered upon.
Coming on the heels of an earlier study that found zinc prevented 25-30 per cent diarrhoea deaths in children that caused zinc to be included in the National Rural Health Mission diarrhoea protocol for ASHAs along with oral rehydration solution this study is likely to further underscore the importance of zinc in the human ability to fight diseases even though the mode of action of the element is still in the realm of speculation.
DBT is now planning a countrywide trial with some 4,000 babies for further confirmation of the findings before it can ask the Health Ministry to include zinc in the protocol to treat bacterial infections too. Zinc deficiency is a problem peculiar only to South East Asia which is why all the findings in the field have come from India. There are some estimates that suggest that 40-45 per cent of our population is zinc deficient even though it is the second most important micronutrient after iron. The problem is there is no symptom to identify zinc deficiency with unless one does a blood test, says Dr M K Bhan,Secretary,DBT.
The interesting aspect of the importance of zinc is that even as researchers wax eloquent about the role it plays,they are not yet certain how it acts though there are some significant pointers in that direction.
Most likely it acts by activating the innate immune system of the body which is triggered as soon as the pathogen enters the body. Many of the enzymes in that immune system have a zinc component. It has also been seen that zinc acts well only when it is given immediately not if it is given after five-six days. That could also mean that it is the innate immunity that is activated but we need more studies to say so for certain, says Dr Uma Chandra Mouli of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute,one of the co-authors of the study.