A little zinc goes a long way in the preventing diarrhea in newborns under 12 months old from India, according to a new study published in Pediatrics.

The World Health Organization currently endorses zinc supplementation for this age group, but the recommendation is based on clinical trials that gave the essential nutrient for months at a time.

This study shows that as little as two weeks of dietary supplements, given early, can reduce the long-term risk of digestive issues for vulnerable infants in India.

"The results of this study have important cost and operational implications, as short-course prophylaxis [i.e., preemptive treatment] of zinc in an adequate dose might be more feasible than continuous therapies," the authors write.

Zinc plays a feature role in the development of the immune system following birth, especially in the gut. The vital mineral is found in a variety of foods — oysters, beef, cereal, cashews, almonds. Breast milk from well-nourished mothers provides sufficient zinc for babies ages 4 to 6 months, but zinc supplementation is recommended for older infants by the National Institutes of Health. Most baby food purees contain levels of zinc necessary for proper development.

Zinc deficiency is linked with intestinal inflammation and results in diarrhea in infants, which can be fatal if left untreated. This is a major problem for malnourished families, resulting in some 400,000 deaths per year.

India, where this study was conducted, ranks among the worst countries in terms of zinc malnutrition. Given food shortages are commonplace in the country, researchers based in New Dehli wondered if a short course of zinc supplementation could reduce levels of intestinal disease among newborns.

The sample consisted of 272 infants ages 6 to 11 months old, recruited from the middle- to lower-income Gokulpuri district, located in the northeast corner Delhi. Participants received baby formula that had either 20 milligram zinc syrup or a placebo for two weeks. Doctors checked on the family every two weeks for five months to monitor the babies and collect reports of any digestive illnesses.

Two weeks of zinc-infused milk reduced the number of diarrhea episodes by 39 percent. Fewer cases of acute diarrhea, persistent diarrhea, and dysentery were reported in infants who received zinc supplement. Infants in the placebo group suffered from diarrhea for an average of 23 days during the study period, while babies on zinc suffered only an average of 10 days.

Researchers argue that by preemptively treating a small community at risk for zinc deficiency, they likely reduced the number of cases of acute diarrhea in the area.

"This is because many children suffering from diarrhea may not come to a health facility, as is common in the slum populations, and thus keep suffering from repeated episodes of diarrhea," the authors write.

They continued: "Future trials on the effect of zinc prophylaxis on diarrhea should concentrate on zinc-deficient pockets in both developed and developing countries."

Source: Malik A, Taneja DK, Devasenapathy N, Rajeshwari K. Short-Course Prophylactic Zinc Supplementation for Diarrhea Morbidity in Infants of 6 to 11 Months. Pediatrics. 2013.