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Friday, March 12, 1999 Published at 00:23 GMT


Inner city children 'need fortified milk'

Cow's milk may not be sufficiently nutritious

Children in inner city areas should be given iron supplemented formula milk rather than cows' milk for the first 18 months of life to ensure that their development is not impaired, scientists have argued.

Iron deficiency anaemia is common in infants living in inner city areas who are given unmodified cow's milk during their first year of life. This can lead to stunted development.

It is thought that iron deficiency anaemia causes children to become clingy, lethargic, irritable and listless. This is turn can lead to the impaired development of learning skills.

It has been estimated that around 10% of young children in the developed world are iron deficient.

In the inner cities this figure could be 30%, and in poor countries it could be as high as 50%.

Children fed on breast milk - which is high in iron - are less likely to develop anaemia, but may still do so if weaned onto milk that is low in the mineral.

Formula is currently available to families on income support up to the age of 12 months.

A team of researchers from Birmingham tested whether iron deficiency anaemia could be prevented by giving children milk supplemented with iron.

Eighty-five babies whose mothers had already decided to feed them on unmodified cow's milk took part in the study.

Approximately half received the fortified infant formula, and the rest continued to be fed with cow's milk.

They found that giving a child an iron supplemented formula milk for the first 18 months of life not only prevents anaemia but also reduces the decline in developmental performance that was observed in those given only cows' milk.

By the age of 18 months, 33% of the infants fed on cow's milk were anaemic, compared with just two per cent who were given the fortified milk.

By the age of 24 months, the infants fed on fortified milk were significantly outperforming their counterparts on tests to measure their social and personal skills.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, the authors say: "Breast milk is clearly the milk of choice for the developing infant.

"Our study suggests that in those mothers who find breast feeding impractical, iron supplemented formula milk seems to be effective and acceptable, and benefits high risk infants and children up to the age of at least 18 months."

In an accompanying commentary, Stuart Logan, from the University College London Medical School, argues that the evidence of a causal link between iron deficiency and developmental difficulties is still unclear and that further research in this area is urgently needed.

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