The Desmond Tutu Foundation HIV in partnership with Queen Mary University in England have embarked on a rigorous study called Vidikids, aimed at reducing the risk of children being infected by tuberculosis (TB) while boosting their immune system.
This large clinical trial is designed to find out whether weekly supplementation with vitamin D, also known as “the sunshine vitamin”, could prevent primary school children from getting infected with TB.
The study would enrol a total of 5 400 children from Philippi, Crossroads, Gugulethu and Mitchell’s Plain.
The study was built on local research showing that low levels of vitamin D were common in Cape Town, especially during winter and spring, and that these low levels were linked to increased susceptibility to TB.
Professor Adrian Martineau, from Queen Mary University, said Cape Town was considered to be one of the areas that have high incidents of TB infection and children were the most vulnerable. Professor Martineau said for a period of three years the children would be given the vitamin D pills on a weekly basis. But he explained that others would be given dummy pills that look like the original and taste the same.
However, he emphasised that both them and the children won’t know who had been given the original pills.
He said children between the ages of 6 and 11 years had already been recruited.
He said at the end of the three-year period they would then conduct various tests to ascertain who had received the real pills and dummy, and compare the rate of TB infection.
He highlighted that the core of this study was to bring a new radical clinical approach in eradicating the infection of TB among children.
Professor Martineau said they wanted to curb TB transmission in townships. He made it clear that the key reason that propelled them to target township areas was simply because these areas were at high risk of TB infection.
“Cape Town is one of the risky areas in Africa when it comes to TB. Lack of vitamin D in children could have a negative impact on the growth of their bones. And the immune system won’t be able to fight off the TB bug. Children living in the township have about a 3% chance of being infected by TB. If the results are positive from the study then this would lead to the government introducing measures to increase the availability of vitamin D. And that could be done simply and inexpensively.
“The government could add vitamin D into foodstuffs. The only food that contains vitamin D is oil, fish, sardines and pilchards. But we get around 90% of vitamin D from the sun,” he said. Professor Martineau said if the study was successful it could revolutionise the approach to TB control, not just in South Africa but worldwide.
He said the World Health Organisation has indicated that by 2050 TB should be eliminated – and this was one of the many strategies and plans which were aimed at doing just that.
He said research they conducted with the University of Cape Town revealed that the TB infection rate fluctuated throughout the year.
He said they wanted to ensure that the immune system of the children is resistant to TB and able to fight the bug. Professor Martineau said some of the numerous research and studies they conducted showed that if children are given vitamin D it helps the immune system to fight the disease.