TUESDAY, May 10 (HealthDay News) -- Vitamin D supplements for
pregnant women may help prevent a respiratory disease called RSV
that can lead to pneumonia and other potentially life-threatening
illnesses in newborns, Dutch researchers report.
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the most common cause of
pneumonia and inflammation of the lower airways (bronchiolitis) in
infants in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention. While most children recover, many
are hospitalized and develop respiratory problems that persist well
"We have no treatment for RSV. The only thing we can do is try to prevent the disease," said lead researcher Dr. Louis Bont, from the department of pediatric infectious diseases at Wilhelmina Children's Hospital and University Medical Center in Utrecht.
One way to prevent RSV is for pregnant women to take
supplemental vitamin D, he said. "In fact, there are guidelines
that prescribe that," he added.
"If pregnant women do not take vitamin D supplements, they have low vitamin D levels in the umbilical cord blood and then the children have a severely increased risk of RSV," Bont said.
"Intake of vitamin D during late stage of pregnancy is vital to prevent RSV, and probably other respiratory diseases as well," he concluded.
RSV infects about 5 million children in the United States each
year. But if women took vitamin D supplements during pregnancy,
about 20 percent of those infections in newborns might be
prevented, Bont said. "That would be in the magnitude of 1 million
cases per year," he said.
Vitamin D has many important functions, Bont explained, noting
that "it shapes and matures the immune system." In addition, the
vitamin plays a role in helping the respiratory system develop, he
The report was published in the May 9 online edition of
For the study, Bont's team measured the amount of vitamin D in
the umbilical cord blood of 156 newborns in the Netherlands.
The researchers found 54 percent of these newborns had
insufficient levels of vitamin D. Among these infants, 18 (12
percent) developed RSV in the first year of life.
In fact, infants with low levels of vitamin D were six times
more likely to develop RSV, compared with infants who had the
highest levels, Bont's group found.
Among the women in the study, only 46 percent said they took
supplements containing vitamin D while they were pregnant, the
Bont thinks all pregnant women should be taking vitamin D
supplements. In general, they should be getting 400 to 1,000
International Units (IU) a day, he said.
In the study, Bont and other researchers explained that some
pregnant women might need up to 4,000 IU a day to achieve the best
outcome for their infants. (Experts who make up the U.S. Food and
Nutrition Board recommend that pregnant women get at least 600 IU
of vitamin D daily and note that they can safely take up to 4,000
IU a day, according to the U.S. Office of Dietary Supplements.)
The cost of prenatal vitamins, which contain vitamin D, is about
$9 a month.
What the researchers have shown in this study is an association
between vitamin D and preventing RSV. To establish a
cause-and-effect relationship, Bont said that randomized trials are
Dr. Andrew Colin, director of the division of pediatric
pulmonology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine,
said this finding could "save the world a humongous amount of
Colin noted the recognition of the link between low vitamin D
levels and lung diseases has been growing over the years. This is
particularly true for asthma. In fact, the increase in the number
of asthma cases can, in part, be attributed to low vitamin D
levels, he said.
"RSV is a worldwide scourge," Colin said. "Probably the most significant lung disease of infancy is RSV. The bad news about this disease is that quite a few infants who have had RSV infection will develop an asthma-like disease, which can affect their entire childhood," he added.
Colin thinks vitamin D may very well prevent RSV. "If, indeed,
boosting the vitamin D in the mothers is going to end up with high
vitamin D in babies [and] is going to make a difference, I think
it's huge," he said.
This concept needs to be tested, Colin said, but added that he
thinks it is fine for pregnant women to take supplemental vitamin D
now. "I can't see the downside," he said.
For more information on respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), visit
U.S. Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention.
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