Recent estimates indicate that every year about 20 million babies are born with a low birth weight. This is around 15.5 percent of the total number of annual births – which has been estimated to be 133 million. With such a significant number of newborns exposed to the negative effects of a low birth weight, finding preventative measures is of great importance. The latest research has indicated that if all mothers took multivitamins during pregnancy it may be possible to reduce the incidence of low birth weights by 17 percent.
Dr Prakash Shah and his team from Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto, recently reported on these global statistics and the potential of this dietary supplementation following work in which they collated research from 15 separate studies on this topic worldwide. These findings are not conclusive as there are too many varying factors between the studies such as, study duration, differences in the supplements provided, participant groups and the timing; however, they are significant.
Micronutrients Versus Iron-folic Acid Supplementation
Traditionally prenatal dietary concerns have focussed on the importance of iron and folic acid. In fact, the World Health Organization currently recommends iron-folic acid supplements during pregnancy and this advice is followed in many developing countries. Yes, iron and folic acid are important, but this recent research indicates that ensuring sufficient intake of micronutrients during pregnancy provides more protection against the possibility of a low birth weight.
Previous studies have not shown this advantage, but Shah’s work has provided enough evidence to indicate the added importance of micronutrients during pregnancy. These findings have been reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).
Why the emphasis on preventing low birth weight? Well, according to Shah, a low weight at birth and the related problems are believed to be the main reason for deaths in children under the age of 5 years worldwide. Shah and his team propose that prenatal supplementation with multimicronutrients could mean that about 1.5 million babies worldwide will not suffer from a low weight at birth.
Given these findings, micronutrient supplementation in pregnancy would be a significant step up from the current iron-folic acid standard. Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta and Dr. Batool Azra Haider of the Aga Khan University in Pakistan actually recommend that, provided it is found to be safe and effective, this option become the norm. They add that in developing countries, treatments for pregnant women may need to extend beyond this as one is dealing with specific nutritional deficiencies and other problems such as HIV, malaria and various serious diseases.