Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that’s caused by parasites from the genus Plasmodium. Five species are known to cause malaria infections in humans, namely, P. falciparum, P. malariae, P. vivax, P. ovale and P. knowlesi. Of these parasites, P. falciparum is said to cause the most life-threatening form of malaria. Patients with falciparum malaria suffer from convulsions, develop liver and kidney failure and often end up in a coma. According to the U.K. National Health Service (NHS), P. falciparum is the most common type of malaria parasite and is responsible for most malaria deaths worldwide.
But apart from the type of malaria pathogen, two other factors appear to contribute to malaria morbidity. Studies show that iron and zinc deficiencies are also common in areas where malaria is widespread. Hence, researchers believe that nutrient supplementation may be of great help to malaria patients.
However, studies show that iron supplementation has no significant effect on malaria outcomes. In fact, a study published in The Lancet even suggested that routine iron supplementation increases the risk of severe illness and death in populations with high malaria rates. These reports have led researchers to hypothesize that instead of iron, vitamin C supplementation together with zinc may be of substantial benefit for malaria treatment. Apart from boosting immune function, vitamin C is known to enhance iron absorption from food.
To test this hypothesis, researchers from Nigeria and the U.K. conducted an experiment using mice infected with P. berghei. This parasite is known to cause malaria in certain rodents. The researchers evaluated the effects of different combinations of vitamin C and zinc on hematological parameters and the mortality of plasmodium-infected mice. They reported their findings in an article published in the journal Food Science and Human Wellness.
Vitamin C and zinc supplementation as complementary treatments for malaria
According to an article published in Nutrition Journal, the combination of vitamins and zinc can help reduce malaria morbidity and mortality in children. Specifically, the researchers found that supplementation with vitamin A and zinc, two nutrients known to boost immunity, reduced the incidence of malaria by 27 percent in children aged six to 24 months. These children belonged to 12 randomly selected communities in Ghana, which is among the 15 countries with the highest burden of malaria in the world.
Based on this finding, the British-Nigerian team hypothesized that vitamin C and zinc could enhance the effects of antimalarial medications and stimulate faster recovery from malaria-induced anemia. Severe malarial anemia is associated with P. falciparum infection and is responsible for a third of malaria-related deaths. (Related: Researchers confirm the antiplasmodial effects of bellyache bush on malaria-infected mice.)
To confirm their hypothesis, the researchers conducted a three-week trial to assess hematological changes and the survival of P. berghei-infected mice after a three-day treatment with the antimalarial drug, artemether, combined with vitamin C and zinc supplementation. They grouped the mice based on different ratios of vitamin C and zinc (i.e., 90:10, 80:20, 70:30, 60:40 and 50:50).
The researchers conducted weekly assays to assess body weight, packed cell volume, white blood cell count, red blood cell count, hemoglobin concentration and mortality. At the end of the trial, they found that malaria mortality was lower in the group that received artemether in combination with vitamin C and zinc. However, supplementation did not reduce parasitemia in the infected mice.
Supplementation with vitamin C and zinc (30:70) also increased survival in the infected mice and produced better results compared to other ratios. In particular, this ratio of vitamin C and zinc helped improve packed cell volume and hemoglobin concentration. Packed cell volume is a measurement of the proportion of blood that is made up of cells. Decreased packed cell volume indicates loss of red blood cells, a condition known as anemia.
Based on these findings, the researchers concluded that vitamin C and zinc supplementation offers therapeutic benefits for the management of malaria.