Nutrition and Immunity – the case for vaccination.

Some people claim that the children who get sick and die of measles are Vitamin A or Zinc deficient. The people making this claim then go on to say a healthy diet protects all children against measles.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A deficiency is one factor that increases measles deaths and long term complication. There are other things that increase these risks. Diet alone won’t alter the severity of an infection. When we talk about healthy diets we must remember one thing. Food is only nutritious if your child eats it. Many kids are fussy eaters. If a kid is fussy enough there is a risk of insufficient vitamin A .
In New Zealand we get Vitamin A in dairy and meat. We consume beta-carotene to make up the recommended intake of Vitamin A daily. Our bodies can convert beta-carotene to vitamin A. We don’t have data for children about their Vitamin A status. Around 1/3 to 1/2 of 15-18 year olds have insufficient Vitamin A intake. They don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables.

Can you take Vitamin A supplements?

Vitamin A in toxic doses can cause birth defects and liver problems. Vitamin A accumulates in the liver and fatty tissue, so it builds up over time. If someone is taking multiple supplements, the first thing I check is vitamin A. I have rung clients at home to stop them taking an excess. I do not believe Vitamin A tablets are is safe except under supervision. The highest risk group for insufficient Vitamin A is children with a restricted diet. Kids who eat mostly “white and tan” carbohydrate rich foods are the most at risk. If this describes your child’s diet I suggest seeking a dietitian to advise you. They would work with your medical team to prescribe appropriate supplements

What about zinc to support the immune system?

It is generally older adults who have insufficient zinc intakes in New Zealand. Zinc usually comes from meat and grains. Zinc is a co-factor for many processes in the body. There is no research to support the use of zinc in measles infection or prevention. I am always hesitant to supplement with single nutrients when there is no evidence of deficiency. In the case of zinc,it is taken up via the same pathways as iron, copper and calcium. High doses of zinc over time could compromise these other nutrients.

Why vaccinate?

I have family members who have health consequences of illnesses we vaccinate for. The statistics are that 1 in 1000 children will have serious long term effect from a case of measles. Vaccine related harm occurs less than 1 in 100,000 and most of those are events like a one off seizure event. I feel very sorry for people who have children who have severe reactions to vaccines. Any tragedy involving the life of a child is awful. Vaccines along with good nutrition and good hygiene, means most of us have not seen the illnesses or their consequences. So the last thing I want to see is a return of conditions we can minimize through use of vaccination.