The world’s fifth-most-traded base metal is an essential component in numerous aspects of cellular metabolism in humans, plants and animals. Its role in this process means it is critical in supporting the healthy operation of the human immune system.
What role does zinc play in healthcare?
Zinc’s basic role in immunity is to enable the proper functioning of macrophage and neutrophil components within white blood cells. Without this capacity, the body is less capable of responding to infectious diseases like pneumonia, the common cold and influenza.
As zinc helps ensure that young, developing bodies have sufficient support in their most formative stages, it is often found in supplements and vitamins. It is also very common in cold and flu medicines for people of all ages, though its impacts there are not as strongly proven.
In countries suffering from poverty and insufficient nutrition, diarrhea is often a mortal concern because when a child suffers from diarrhea-related illnesses, zinc is expelled from the body, reducing the ability of the child’s immune system to battle the disease.
The consequences of not getting enough zinc can thus be severe for infants and youth in these countries. Each year, approximately 2 million children under the age of five die from diarrhea; that is more deaths than are attributed to AIDS, malaria and measles combined, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports.
What is zinc deficiency?
Zinc deficiency — known as hypozincemia and described as a diet deprived of natural zinc nutrients — is a serious problem in many developing countries. Simply put, zinc deficiency reduces the capacity of the body’s cells to retain water.
Not an insignificant affliction, this type of deficiency impacts approximately 21 percent of the global youth population, according to the Child and Adolescent Health Division of the World Health Organization. It is estimated that 450,000 children die annually because of diseases and infections associated with zinc deficiency.
Getting the proper amount of zinc is particularly important for children suffering from severe or chronic diarrhea brought on by a lack of clean drinking water or poor sanitation; in cases of severe diarrhea, dehydration can be a mortal concern.
In the wake of these impacts, numerous health programs have targeted zinc as a critical health supplement for children. Zinc sulphate, acetate and gluconate are key forms of supplementation and constitute part of the 6 percent of zinc that is directed to chemical end uses in global markets, according to the International Lead and Zinc Study Group.
Combined with oral rehydration solutions, these simple supplements have been shown to increase the resiliency and resistance of children to diarrhea, pneumonia and acute lower respiratory infections. The World Health Organization and other academic researchers have documented that zinc supplements, combined with oral rehydration salts, can also reduce the frequency and impacts of pneumonia in children as well.
Zinc industry response
Internationally, charities, nongovernmental organizations and corporate groups are involved in efforts to ensure that these zinc supplement products and the associated zinc-deficiency based diseases and infections are eradicated.
In the fall of this year, Teck evolved its participation in zinc-deficiency programs by running the One Tweet, One Life social media campaign to help bring zinc supplements to those in need.
Teck’s campaign includes a commitment to donate 50 cents — enough for a life-saving 10- to 14-day course of zinc treatment — for each retweet of the @ZincSavesLives message. Funding goes to Zinc Saves Kids in support of UNICEF projects in Nepal and Peru, and Teck’s participation is aligned with Free the Children’s We Day celebrations, which supports global youth action for change.
Teck CEO Don Lindsay has said of the company’s work, “[a]s one of the world’s largest producers of zinc we recognize we have the ability to make a difference. Teck is working to raise awareness about zinc deficiency with the goal of helping to save children’s lives.”
The International Zinc Association (IZA), a non-profit organization that represents the zinc industry, has supported the Zinc Saves Kids program since 2010. Earlier this year, the association joined a public-private partnership to raise $20 million to support diarrhea-prevention programs and the United Nations’ Millennium Development goal of reducing child mortality by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015.
Stephen Wilkinson, executive director of the IZA, noted in a press release, “[w]e are pleased to see our initial effort with Zinc Saves Kids spreading its reach to The MDG Health Alliance’s partnership which will help to drastically reduce the number of child deaths caused by diarrhea.”
Shedding light on a health issues
Also on a mission to shed light on the problem of zinc deficiency is Chelsea Clinton, Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) board member and Clinton progeny, who recently gave a speech promoting the activities of CHAI in places like Nigeria, India and Bangladesh, where zinc deficiency affects nearly 80 percent of children.
“I would like to see us make real, measurable progress here in Nigeria and in the other countries where we are working on ORS zinc,” Reuters quoted Clinton as saying following a recent event in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.
Clinton maintains that while people may not want to talk about issues such as diarrhea treatments, it is important to shed a light on these problems and work towards creating solutions. Working with companies like Unilever, CHAI hopes to increase demand for treatments for zinc deficiencies and drive the cost down to, hopefully, $0.50 per dosage.
Zinc micronutrient powders constitute a small proportion of the metal’s end use. But just a few grams of zinc can make a world of difference in the lives of millions of children.
Securities Disclosure: I, James Wellstead, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.