Zinc could be a wonder drug after all, just not for the disease we thought

The effectiveness of zinc as a treatment for colds is hotly debated, but it appears the element might have a major role in saving lives — with a completely different disease. A new report published in BMC Medicine suggests that zinc supplements might significantly improve the survival rate of young children with pneumonia. Researchers at Makerere University in Uganda undertook a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial, of 350 children under the age of five with respiratory tract infections. All the subjects were treated with standard antibiotics, but half were given zinc supplements in addition, and half a placebo.

While there was no change in the recovery time between the two groups, what there was was a significantly lower death rate from the disease. 12% of the children on the placebo died from the infections, and that number was just 4% with the zinc.

With acute respiratory tract infections being the most common cause of death in children younger than five, and zinc deficiency as prevalent as 70% of the child population in some areas of Uganda, this seems like a fairly low cost and simple way to help save a significant number of lives. And while Uganda may be unusually high in this regard, zinc deficiency may be as common as in 25% of the global population, and more so in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. If by fighting something as simple as a nutritional deficiency we can save untold lives, it seems like a fairly obvious path.

Image of zinc oxide from the Department of Energy's Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory.