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[CHENNAI] Diabetes experts have called for vitamin B12 to be added to food for young girls and expectant mothers, having discovered a possible link between low levels of the vitamin in mothers' diets and the epidemic of type 2 diabetes in India.

Around 15 per cent of adult Indian females die between the ages of 20 and 79 years from diabetes, according to the Indian Council of Medical Research, and the WHO estimates that more than 30 million Indian women will be diabetic by 2025.

Developing diabetes while pregnant is known to result in a mother's offspring having a higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. Scientists have now found that whether a mother develops diabetes could be down to vitamin B12.

The researchers, led by Chittaranjan S. Yajnik from India's King Edward Memorial Hospital, studied more than 800 women and their children from 1993 to 2002. They found that a lack of vitamin B12 in the diets of the pregnant women resulted in abnormally high levels of the amino acid homocysteine in the blood.

These high levels impair the ability of pregnant women to make insulin. Diabetics either lack insulin or cannot use it effectively.

The researchers measured the children every six months, and compared them with children born in the United Kingdom. At age six, the Indian children were shorter and thinner but had a higher fat mass around their torso — a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.

"Lack of vitamin B12 changes the function of the genes that produce insulin, both in the mother and baby," said Yajnik, adding that the vitamin B12 deficiency was due to a lack of red meat.

"The Indian studies could help develop diabetes control models worldwide," Michael Engelgau, senior public health specialist at the South Asia Human Development Unit of World Bank told SciDev.Net.

Yanjik said vitamin B12 should now be added to the Indian national food fortification programme, which provides folates, iodised salt and vitamin A-fortified rice and flour to 600 million people.

Yajnik presented the results of the maternal nutrition study at a World Diabetes Foundation summit for South-East Asia in Chennai, India, last year (November).