Hans Verhoef and colleagues report findings from a randomized trial conducted among Tanzanian children at high risk for malaria. Children in the trial received either daily oral supplementation with either zinc alone, multi-nutrients without zinc, multi-nutrients with zinc, or placebo. The investigators did not find evidence from this study that zinc or multi-nutrients protected against malaria episodes.
It is uncertain to what extent oral supplementation with zinc can reduce episodes of malaria in endemic areas. Protection may depend on other nutrients. We measured the effect of supplementation with zinc and other nutrients on malaria rates.
Methods and Findings
In a 2×2 factorial trial, 612 rural Tanzanian children aged 6–60 months in an area with intense malaria transmission and with height-for-age z-score≤−1.5 SD were randomized to receive daily oral supplementation with either zinc alone (10 mg), multi-nutrients without zinc, multi-nutrients with zinc, or placebo. Intervention group was indicated by colour code, but neither participants, researchers, nor field staff knew who received what intervention. Those with Plasmodium infection at baseline were treated with artemether-lumefantrine. The primary outcome, an episode of malaria, was assessed among children reported sick at a primary care clinic, and pre-defined as current Plasmodium infection with an inflammatory response, shown by axillary temperature ≥37.5°C or whole blood C-reactive protein concentration ≥8 mg/L. Nutritional indicators were assessed at baseline and at 251 days (median; 95% reference range: 191–296 days). In the primary intention-to-treat analysis, we adjusted for pre-specified baseline factors, using Cox regression models that accounted for multiple episodes per child. 592 children completed the study. The primary analysis included 1,572 malaria episodes during 526 child-years of observation (median follow-up: 331 days). Malaria incidence in groups receiving zinc, multi-nutrients without zinc, multi-nutrients with zinc and placebo was 2.89/child-year, 2.95/child-year, 3.26/child-year, and 2.87/child-year, respectively. There was no evidence that multi-nutrients influenced the effect of zinc (or vice versa). Neither zinc nor multi-nutrients influenced malaria rates (marginal analysis; adjusted HR, 95% CI: 1.04, 0.93–1.18 and 1.10, 0.97–1.24 respectively). The prevalence of zinc deficiency (plasma zinc concentration <9.9 µmol/L) was high at baseline (67% overall; 60% in those without inflammation) and strongly reduced by zinc supplementation.
We found no evidence from this trial that zinc supplementation protected against malaria.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary.
Malaria is a serious global public-health problem. Half of the world's population is at risk of this parasitic disease, which kills a million people (mainly children living in sub-Saharan Africa) every year. Malaria is transmitted to people through the bites of infected night-flying mosquitoes. Soon after entering the human body, the parasite begins to replicate in red blood cells, bursting out every 2–3 days and infecting more red blood cells. The presence of the parasite in the blood stream (parasitemia) causes malaria's characteristic recurring fever and can cause life-threatening organ damage and anemia (insufficient quantity of red blood cells). Malaria transmission can be reduced by using insecticide sprays to control the mosquitoes that spread the parasite and by avoiding mosquito bites by sleeping under insecticide-treated bed nets. Effective treatment with antimalarial drugs can also reduce malaria transmission.
Why Was This Study Done?
One reason why malaria kills so many children in Africa is poverty. Many children in Africa are malnourished, and malnutrition—in particular, insufficient micronutrients in the diet—impairs the immune system, which increases the frequency and severity of many childhood diseases. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that everyone needs in small quantities for good health. Zinc is one of the micronutrients that helps to maintain a healthy immune system, but zinc deficiency is very common among African children. Zinc supplementation has been shown to reduce the burden of diarrhea in developing countries, so might it also reduce the burden of malaria? Unfortunately, the existing evidence is confusing—some trials show that zinc supplementation protects against malaria but others show no evidence of protection. One possibility for these conflicting results could be that zinc supplementation alone is not sufficient—supplementation with other micronutrients might be needed for zinc to have an effect. In this randomized trial (a study that compares the effects of different interventions in groups that initially are similar in all characteristics except for intervention), the researchers investigate the effect of supplementation with zinc alone and in combination with other micronutrients on the rate of uncomplicated (mild) malaria among children living in Tanzania.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers enrolled 612 children aged 6–60 months who were living in a rural area of Tanzania with intense malaria transmission and randomly assigned them to receive daily oral supplements containing zinc alone, multi-nutrients (including iron) without zinc, multi-nutrients with zinc, or a placebo (no micronutrients). Nutritional indicators (including zinc concentrations in blood plasma) were assessed at baseline and 6–10 months after starting the intervention. During the study period, there were 1,572 malaria episodes. The incidence of malaria in all four intervention groups was very similar (about three episodes per child-year), and there was no evidence that multi-nutrients influenced the effect of zinc (or vice versa). Moreover, none of the supplements had any effect on malaria rates when compared to the placebo, even though the occurrence of zinc deficiency was strongly reduced by zinc supplementation. In a secondary analysis in which they analyzed their data by iron status at baseline, the researchers found that multi-nutrient supplementation increased the overall number of malaria episodes in children with iron deficiency by 41%, whereas multi-nutrient supplementation had no effect on the number of malaria episodes among children who were iron-replete at baseline.
What Do These Findings Mean?
In this study, the researchers found no evidence that zinc supplementation protected against malaria among young children living in Tanzania when given alone or in combination with other multi-nutrients. However, the researchers did find some evidence that multi-nutrient supplementation may increase the risk of malaria in children with iron deficiency. Because this finding came out of a secondary analysis of the data, it needs to be confirmed in a trial specifically designed to assess the effect of multi-nutrient supplements on malaria risk in iron-deficient children. Nevertheless, it is a potentially worrying result because, on the basis of evidence from a single study, the World Health Organization currently recommends that regular iron supplements be given to iron-deficient children in settings where there is adequate access to anti-malarial treatment. This recommendation should be reconsidered, suggest the researchers, and the safety of multi-nutrient mixes that contain iron and that are dispensed in countries affected by malaria should also be carefully evaluated.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001125.
Information is available from the World Health Organization on malaria (in several languages), on micronutrients, and on zinc deficiency; the 2010 World Malaria Report provides details of the current global malaria situation
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide information on malaria (in English and Spanish), including a selection of personal stories about malaria
Information is available from the Roll Back Malaria Partnership on the global control of malaria and on malaria in Africa
The Malaria Centre at the UK London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine develops tools, techniques, and knowledge about malaria, and has a strong emphasis on teaching, training, and translating research outcomes into practice
The Micronutrient Initiative, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, and the Flour Fortification Initiative are not-for-profit organizations dedicated to ensuring that people in developing countries get the minerals and vitamins they need to survive and thrive
The International Zinc Nutrition Consultative Group (iZiNCG) is a non-profit organization that aims to promote and assist efforts to reduce zinc deficiency worldwide, through advocacy efforts, education, and technical assistance
MedlinePlus provides links to additional information on malaria (in English and Spanish)