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Iron, Vitamin D May Lead to Smarter, Healthier Children

A new international study finds vitamin D can lower the risk of respiratory infections in babies
A new international study finds vitamin D can lower the risk of respiratory infections in babies

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This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

Many people have low iron in their blood. But pregnant women need extra iron for their own health and their baby's health. Iron is important to the development of a baby's brain and central nervous system.

In poor countries, however, providing all pregnant women with iron supplements can be a financial issue. Some experts say giving supplements to babies after they are born is enough.

Someone who disagrees is Parul Christian, a nutritionist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Maryland. She and other scientists have been doing research in Nepal. She says their latest findings should settle any question about the value of making sure every pregnant woman receives iron supplements.

Iron is a micronutrient. Micronutrients are important substances that are found in small amounts in foods.

The researchers first completed a study among poor women in Nepal ten years ago. During pregnancy some of the women received supplements containing iron and another micronutrient, folic acid.

Professor Christian says that study showed the supplements could improve child survival.

Now the children are older. The researchers returned to Nepal and tested their neurological development. They found improved intellectual and fine motor abilities among those whose mothers had received iron and folic acid during pregnancy and for three months after.

The findings appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Another new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, looks at levels of vitamin D in babies. It says newborns with the lowest levels were twice as likely to develop respiratory infections as those with normal levels of vitamin D.

Vitamin D helps build strong bones and strengthens the body's defenses against disease. The vitamin is commonly added to cow's milk and also found in supplements. But vitamin D is called the sunshine vitamin. The body naturally produces it from sunlight.

Carlos Camargo from Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts and other researchers did the study. It followed more than nine hundred children in New Zealand until they were five years old.

CARLOS CAMARGO: "And what we found was that children who had the lowest levels of vitamin D had a high risk of developing infections and wheezing throughout childhood."

He says the problem of vitamin D deficiency is not limited to countries with the least sun.

CARLOS CAMARGO: "People are moving more and more indoors. And they work indoors. They play indoors. Everything’s indoors. And so we’re actually starting to see low levels of vitamin D in areas where the sun is plentiful."

And that's the VOA Special English Health Report. I'm Steve Ember.


Contributors: Jessica Berman and Rose Hoban