According to new research zinc supplements are a safe and effective way to reduce illness in children with HIV.
The U.S. researchers say that evidence shows that the zinc reduces the chance of diarrhoea and pneumonia without any risk of worsening the HIV infection.
The use of zinc has been questioned in the past because HIV thrives on zinc for its structure and to help it penetrate immune cells and reproduce, and zinc also activates the body cells that are targeted by HIV, the T lymphocytes.
Lead researcher Dr William Moss says that zinc supplementation could be a simple and cost-effective intervention to reduce morbidity and mortality in children with HIV-1 infection, and any safety fears are unfounded.
Dr William Moss and colleagues at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, in Baltimore, recruited 96 children, aged between 6 months and five years, from Grey's Hospital in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and randomly assigned the children to receive zinc supplements or a dummy drug each day for six months.
The researchers say that zinc supplements did not result in an increase in blood HIV viral load, a measure of HIV severity, but the children receiving zinc did have less diarrhoea.
According to Dr Moss there are few interventions available to reduce morbidity in children with HIV-1 infection in resource-poor countries.
Dr Moss says that although UNAIDS, the World Health Organisation and their partners are committed to providing antiretroviral therapy to 3 million people by the end of 2005, many children still do not have access to this treatment or drugs to prevent opportunistic infections.
A spokeswoman from the HIV charity AVERT says further studies would be desirable before any decision was made to recommend zinc supplementation as standard practice.
As more than half the children die before the age of three years, usually of respiratory tract infections and diarrhoeal diseases, zinc supplementation could be a simple and cost-effective intervention to reduce morbidity and mortality in children with HIV-1 infection.
People with a healthy, balanced diet should not normally be deficient in zinc.
Foods rich in zinc include fish, meat, cheese, some nuts and seeds and brown rice.
The report is published in the current edition of The Lancet.