Vitamin A supplements, which help to cut deaths from other infections, may also prevent children from contracting malaria, according to new research.
Nearly 500 children between six and 60 months living in areas of malaria epidemics in Papua New Guinea were given either high doses of vitamin A or a placebo every three months for over a year.
The researchers, from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, found the number of episodes of malaria (Plasmodium falciparum) among their young study group was 30 per cent lower in those who were given vitamin A than in controls.
Vitamin A is essential for a healthy immune system, so supplementation may work by helping the child gain immunity after exposure to P falciparum, the researchers believe. In the study, the greatest benefit occurred among the one to three year olds, in whom vitamin A supplements lowered illness by 35 per cent. It is among this age group, whose immunity is still developing, that deaths from malaria are highest.
Among young children in general, malaria is the most frequent cause of death, accounting for nearly a third of mortalities. (Lancet, 1999; 354: 203-9).