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[ISLAMABAD] High doses of vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) were found to be effective in helping treat severe child malnutrition, a new study conducted in Pakistan’s Punjab province suggests.  

Researchers from the University of the Punjab (PU), Lahore, and the Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) said doses of vitamin D3 supplements, alongside regular treatment for malnutrition, significantly helped a group of 185 malnourished children aged 2—58 months to gain weight and height, as well as improve motor skills and learning abilities.

“Pakistani health authorities should now join hands with the country’s health educational institutes and private sector to address child malnutrition”

Atif Habib, Aga Khan University

A second group of 92 children, also under standard treatment for severe, acute malnutrition but placed on placebos instead of vitamin D3 supplements showed far less improvement than the first group, according to the study published this month (May) in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

Rubeena Zakar, an author of the study and associate professor at PU’s department of the public health, tells SciDev.Net that the children who received high-dose vitamin D3 had significantly better weight gain compared with the children who received the placebo. They also had significantly better motor skills and language development. 

“The results of adding high-dose vitamin D3 to the regular treatment for malnutrition are a first, and not previously studied,” says Aida Girma-Melaku, UNICEF representative in Pakistan. She says that the standard treatment given to malnourished children in different countries is a high-energy food paste which has only modest amounts of vital micronutrients such as vitamin D3.

Cholecalciferol, called the ‘sunshine vitamin’ because it is naturally made by the skin on exposure to ultraviolet rays in sunlight, is also found in animal-origin foods like cheese, fish and eggs. It plays a key role in the absorption of calcium and phosphorous, which are essential for the building of bones and teeth.      

Adrian Martineau, professor at QMUL and an author of the study, says the results carry lessons for the developing countries of Africa, Asia-Pacific and other regions which are home to an estimated 20 million malnourished children. Atif Habib, assistant professor, paediatrics and child health, Aga Khan University, tells SciDev.Net that the results of the study are an eye-opener.

“Pakistani health authorities should now join hands with the country’s health educational institutes and private sector to address child malnutrition,” says Habib, a lead member of the National Nutrition Survey 2018 launched in February.

Vitamin D deficiency is a known risk factor for muscle wasting in malnourished children, but the standard treatment — a high-energy food paste — contains relatively modest amounts of Vitamin D3. 

According to the National Nutrition Survey 2011, a third of Pakistani children are underweight, nearly 44 per cent are stunted, 15 per cent are wasted and half are anaemic.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

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