Q My nine-year-old daughter is just recovering from a bad bout of measles. With this, she had an ear infection and conjunctivitis, and this is clearing up, but her cough seems to be lingering. I’m worried that her weakened immune system may not be able to fight the bugs that are flying around in school, especially during this time of the year.
Is there anything I can do to rapidly strengthen her immune system and increase her resistance to other infections? - WC, Surbiton
A Making sure your daughter replenishes her depleted levels of nutrients is definitely a step in the right direction. Vitamin A is a great infection-fighter but, sadly, it hasn’t enjoyed the same amount of media attention as its sexier cousins, vitamins C and E. Despite its crucial role in maintaining the smooth functioning of numerous bodily processes, the importance of vitamin A has been woefully underplayed.
Over 300 genes are regulated by the rapid action of vitamin A (Curr Issues Public Health, 1996; 2: 161-4). It is vital for healthy eyesight, bone growth, reproduction and embryonic development (Annu Rev Nutr, 2002; 22: 347-81; Birth Defects Res C Embryo Today, 2003; 69: 156-73; Lancet, 1994; 343: 87-8).
More important, vitamin A is essential for a healthy immune system. It maintains the surface tissues that line the eyes as well as the respiratory, urinary and intestinal tracts. These internal cellular linings (along with the skin) act as physical barriers to invasion by disease-causing bacteria and viruses. So, vitamin A helps the body resist infection by bolstering these mechanical defences.
In addition, this vitamin helps to regulate the immune system by enabling lymphocytes - the white blood cells that fight infection and disease - to do their jobs more effectively. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)-positive patients are advised to fortify their diets with vitamin A-rich foods, and HIV-infected pregnant women who are deficient in this micronutrient have a three to four times greater risk of transmitting the HIV to their baby than is usual for this group (AIDS Action, 1995; 30 [Sep-Nov]: 4-5).
Indeed, there is a wealth of evidence highlighting the antiviral properties of vitamin A not just for battling against the common cold or flu, but also as tools for treating and preventing other infectious diseases, including measles.
WDDTY panellist Dr Patrick Kingsley is a strong advocate of vitamin A and its healing properties. To treat measles in young patients, he suggests giving them a shot of high-dose (20,000- 30,000 IU) vitamin A in the acute phase for some two or three days. Following this, the dosage can be reduced to 10,000 IU for about a week. After that, 5000 IU should be quite sufficient to see them back to recovery, says Dr Kingsley. The only thing to check for, he adds, is that they’re not getting headaches from the high dosages of vitamin A during the acute phase.
As your daughter is already in the recovery stage, this may be a good time for you to help her kick-start her immune system by giving her one cod-liver-oil capsule every day. According to Dr Kingsley, “Cod liver oil is one of the best ways to get a reasonable dose of not just vitamin A, but also vitamin D. Each capsule should typically contain around 4000 IU of vitamin A and 400 IU of vitamin D - this should help her get back to shape.”
Once she’s completely recovered, you could then cut back the dosage schedule to one capsule a week to maintain her immune system function.