Right pill to swallow to protect against Covid? Experts on kids and vitamins

14 February 2021 - 00:00
Experts say children should be getting their vitamins from a balanced diet.
Experts say children should be getting their vitamins from a balanced diet.
Image: 123RF/Olga Yastremska

In an effort to boost her children’s immunity to fight the coronavirus, Cape Town mother Maureen Kunene spent R350 on multivitamins for her two children, aged three and 10, ahead of schools reopening.

But it turns out that the money would have been better spent on fruit and vegetables.

Children, say medical experts, do not need vitamins to avoid getting Covid-19. The World Health Organisation (WHO) told the Sunday Times there is “no evidence for the use of vitamins and boosters to prevent or cure” Covid-19.

And leading South African paediatric specialists said no individual food or supplement will increase a child’s immune system beyond normal levels.

Experts said children should be getting their vitamins from a balanced diet.

“I asked the mothers on our WhatsApp group what they had bought and then googled,” said Kunene.

“When I got to the pharmacy, I bought what I could but was in an absolute panic because every booster with vitamin C was sold out. I spoke to my family doctor about my concerns about not giving my children vitamin C and he said that they did not need it as both were healthy,” she said.

The WHO said ongoing studies using vitamin C and D will help determine whether vitamins can prevent contracting the virus.

“In the meantime, good nutrition with a well balanced diet is recommended for everybody to ensure strengthening of the immune system,” the global health authority said.

In Numbers

• 132,000 - the number of children in SA who have contracted Covid-19

• $300bn - the estimated global value of the vitamin industry by 2024

The chief director of child, youth and school health at the national department of health, DrLesley Bamford, said children should not be on multivitamins in Covid-19 times unless they are undernourished.

“The immune function of children who are poorly nourished, due to either insufficient dietary intake of key nutrients or a poor overall diet quality, can be compromised and [they] are at greater risk of bacterial, viral and other infections.”

She said that, according to nutrition surveys conducted in SA, several micronutrient deficiencies are prevalent among vulnerable groups. The surveys found inadequate intakes of vitamin A (retinol), vitamin C, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, calcium, iron and zinc.

“These and many other micronutrients, namely vitamin D and magnesium, are involved with the normal functioning of the body, including the immune system.

“These micronutrients are found in a variety of foods. It is important that children eat a well balanced diet that can help ensure the normal functioning of the immune system,” she said.

Children on a good, ordinary diet do not need multivitamin supplements, and there certainly is no reason for children to be supplemented with multivitamins to prevent Covid-19
Professor Haroon Saloojee 

Professor Haroon Saloojee, of Wits University's paediatrics and child health department, said the nutraceutical industry hypes the value of vitamins and minerals.

“Children on a good, ordinary diet do not need multivitamin supplements, and there certainly is no reason for children to be supplemented with multivitamins to prevent Covid-19,” he said.

The Association for Dietetics in SA said it was natural for parents to want to protect their children by minimising the risk of contracting Covid-19, but there is no simple quick fix to boost immune systems that will guarantee that children and adults will not be infected.

“Good hygiene practice and social distancing remain the best means of avoiding infection,” said spokesperson Retha Harmse.

So masks on and lunch boxes packed with fruit and vegetables when the kids go back to school this week.


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