Researchers in India have found that zinc supplementation, in addition to standard antibiotics, reduces the risk of treatment failure among young children with suspected serious bacterial infections by 40%. The study is published Online First in The Lancet.

In 2010, nearly 66% of deaths in children under 5 around the world were due to infections. Of these deaths, around two-fifths occurred within the first month of life.

Shinjini Bhatnagar from the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute and All India Institute of Medical Sciences in India, who conducted the study, explained:

“Zinc is an accessible, low-cost intervention that could add to the effect of antibiotic treatment and lead to substantial reductions in infant mortality, particularly in developing countries where millions of children die from serious infections every year, and where second-line antibiotics and appropriate intensive care might not be available.”

In order to evaluate how effective zinc is in addition to standard antibiotic therapy for suspected serious bacterial infections, such as meningitis, pneumonia, and sepsis, the researchers enrolled children aged between 120 days old to 7 years who were undergoing antibiotic treatment for serious infections in three hospitals in New Delhi, India.

The researchers randomly assigned 352 infants to receive 10 mg zinc each day orally, and 348 to receive placebo. The researchers measured treatment failure as the need for secondary antibiotic treatment within 7 days, need for treatment in intensive care, or death within 21 days.

The researchers found that children were 40% less likely to experience treatment failure when given zinc than placebo. Out of the 332 children who received zinc, 34 treatment failures occurred vs. 55 treatment failures in the 323 participants who received placebo. Although not statistically significant, the researchers also found that there was a relative reduction (43%) in risk of mortality in children given zinc.

The researchers explained: “We would only need to give 15 children with probable serious bacterial infection zinc to prevent one treatment failure.”

They conclude:

“Zinc syrup or dispersible tablets are already available in the public and private health-care systems for the treatment of acute diarrhea in many countries of low and middle income and the incremental costs to make this intervention available for young infants with probable serious bacterial infection would be small.”

In a joint comment, Christa Fischer Walker and Robert Black from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, USA, explained:

“This finding is important because case fatality is high in infants presenting with symptoms of probable serious bacterial infection.

The exact mechanism for the effect of supplemental zinc is unknown and needs further investigation, but the clinical benefits in diarrhea and pneumonia in children younger than 5 years, and now in probable serious infections in young infants, suggest that therapeutic use of zinc could have wide application. Additionally, zinc would be beneficial…for other serious bacterial infections, such as those causing typhoid fever or meningitis.”

Written By Petra Rattue