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WHO: Vitamin Pills for Certain Pregnant Women Boost Birth Weight

A study in Tanzania shows that pregnant women in developing countries have healthier babies if they are given a simple, cheap medical intervention - vitamin supplements. In a world where an estimated 20 million infants are born too small each year, the researchers recommend vitamin pills for all expectant mothers in poor countries. VOA's David McAlary reports.

The World Health Organization says more than 15 percent of all babies are delivered underweight, less than 2,500 grams. Ninety-five-percent of these births occur in developing countries.

Harvard University School of Public Health researcher Wafaie Fawzi says low birth weight can have serious health consequences for an infant. "Low birth weight is associated with adverse outcomes during infancy, including infant mortality and poor growth and cognitive development. So reducing low birth weight could have a beneficial effect on those end points later in life," he said.

Fawzi and colleagues from Harvard and the Muhimbili College of Health Sciences in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania have found that multi-vitamin supplements can be a way of doing that.

To find out how beneficial they are, they gave vitamins to 4,200 pregnant Tanzanian women, while an equal number of others in the study did not get them. None of the expectant mothers had the AIDS virus HIV. "Giving those supplements reduced the risks of low birth weight and having a small baby at birth compared to women who did not receive the supplements," he said.

The risks were about 20 percent less if the mothers took the vitamins. There were no significant differences between the two groups in the rate of premature deliveries or fetal death.

The daily supplements contained all the B vitamins, vitamins C and E, plus iron and folate in levels several times higher than recommended for women in industrial nations.

The doctors report in The New England Journal of Medicine that the micro-nutrients help improve fetal growth probably by improving maternal immunity and levels of hemoglobin, the pigment in red blood cells that carries oxygen.

The researchers earlier found the same multi-vitamin regimen caused even better results among pregnant Tanzanian mothers who had HIV. The supplements reduced their risk of delivering an underweight and small baby by more than 40 percent, about twice the benefit seen in the uninfected women.

Fawzi, a native of Sudan, says multivitamins should be considered for all pregnant women in developing countries, given their potential benefits and low cost.

"Miciro-nutrient deficiencies are common in many developing countries. Despite having iron and folate as part of standard care in Tanzania and many of these settings, it is evident that many of these women suffer from other nutritional deficiencies besides iron and folate. So providing a supplement that includes these vitamins could have beneficial effects in those settings as well."

In 2002, the U.N. Special Session on Children adopted a goal of reducing the incidence of low birth weight by at least one-third through 2010.