April 5, 2007 / 1:24 PM / 12 years ago

Vitamin pills prevent low-weight babies: study

BOSTON (Reuters) - Extra vitamin supplements can reduce the risk of having an underweight or undersized baby, and all pregnant women in developing countries should get them, researchers said on Wednesday.

A dtore worker walks past rows of herbal, vitamin and mineral pill products at a suburban pharmacy in Sydney April 29, 2003. Extra vitamin supplements can reduce the risk of having an underweight or undersized baby, and all pregnant women in developing countries should get them, researchers said on Wednesday. REUTERS/David Gray

But the team, reporting in the New England Journal of Medicine, said the supplements did not lower the likelihood of premature birth or losing the fetus before birth.

The study, conducted in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, involved 8,468 pregnant women who were free of the AIDS virus and who received iron and folic acid supplements, both proven prenatal treatments. Half were given supplements containing vitamins C, E and a mix of B vitamins. The rest got placebos.

The fetal death rate stayed around 5 percent and the rate of premature delivery was nearly 17 percent regardless of whether mothers got the vitamins, the team, led by Wafaie Fawzi of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, reported.

But the risk of having a low birth-weight baby dropped from 9.4 percent among the placebo recipients to 7.8 percent for the babies whose mothers took the supplements.

“In light of these findings, we recommend that multivitamins be considered for all pregnant women in developing countries, regardless of their HIV status,” Fawzi said in a statement.

His team previously found supplements saved the lives of babies of HIV-infected women.

About 20 million low birth-weight babies are born each year, 96 percent of them in developing countries. Babies of low birth weight, defined as less than 5.5 pounds (2,500 grams), are more likely to die young, have growth and learning difficulties and may later be prone to diabetes and heart disease.

“Many developing countries have a system for providing prenatal iron and folate supplements; the supplements are produced in bulk by the United Nations Children’s Fund at an estimated cost of less than $1 per person for the duration of the pregnancy,” the researchers wrote.

Adding the extra vitamins, they said, would probably increase that cost by just 20 cents, “and scaling up prenatal multiple micronutrient supplementation could be a highly cost-effective approach to improving both outcomes among pregnant women in developing countries.”

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