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Is an Increased Risk of Catching Tuberculosis Related to Vitamin E Deficiency?

Researchers in Peru investigate whether there is a link between pre-existing Vitamin E status and the likelihood of developing tuberculosis.

Worldwide in 2015, there were an estimated 10.4 million cases of tuberculosis(TB) and 1.8 million tuberculosis deaths. Individuals living in the same household as the tuberculosis patient, especially those that are micronutrient-deficient, are most at risk of contracting this disease. However, few studies have assessed whether pre-existing vitamin E status is linked to tuberculosis risk.

What is Tuberculosis?

Tuberculosis, or TB as it is more commonly called, is a disease caused by the bacterial species Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Clinical symptoms include fever, night sweats, coughing, hemoptysis (coughing up sputum stained with blood), chest pain, and weight loss. Tuberculosis is curable if treated with antibiotics or anti-TB drugs. If left untreated, tuberculosis can lead to severe lung, kidney, and liver problems or even death.

Although tuberculosis is infectious and spreads through droplets in the air, it is not easy to catch. Babies, senior citizens, those with a compromised immune system, and the malnourished are at greater risk of contracting the disease. However, regular and prolonged contact with an infected individual means that the risk of infection is often greatest for individuals living in the same household as the tuberculosis patient. Researchers are continuously looking for ways to prevent TB infections.

Vitamin E Enhances the Immune Response

Vitamin E plays a role in protecting immune cells from oxidative damage. Animal models indicate that vitamin E deficiency impairs cell-mediated immune responses. In addition, human studies have provided evidence that vitamin E enhances the immune response by stimulating T-cell differentiation and proliferation.

There is also research showing an association between various micronutrient deficiencies and active TB disease.  However, few studies have assessed whether pre-existing vitamin E status is associated with a higher likelihood of catching TB from a household member.  In a recent study published in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers evaluated the association between baseline plasma concentrations of three vitamin E isomers (α-tocopherol, γ -tocopherol, and δ-tocopherol) and tuberculosis disease risk.

This study was a case-control study nested within a longitudinal cohort of household contacts of pulmonary tuberculosis cases in Lima, Peru. The researchers investigated individuals living in the household who developed active tuberculosis at least two weeks after the diagnosis of the primary tuberculosis patient. Each case was matched to four control cases who did not develop active tuberculosis based on age and gender.

Vitamin E Deficiency Associated with an Increased Risk of Tuberculosis

They found that vitamin E deficiency in individuals was associated with an increased risk of contracting tuberculosis from household members with tuberculosis. As such, they recommend assessing the vitamin E status of these individuals and possibly providing vitamin E supplementation to help curb the spread of tuberculosis.

Written by Debra A. Kellen, PhD

Reference: Aibana, O., Franke, M. F., Huang, C. C., Galea, J. T., Calderon, R., Zhang, Z., … & Lecca, L. (2018). Vitamin E Status Is Inversely Associated with Risk of Incident Tuberculosis Disease among Household Contacts. The Journal of Nutrition148(1), 56-62.

Debra Kellen PhD
Debra Kellen PhD
With undergraduate degrees in Neuroscience and Education from the University of Toronto, Debra began her career as a teacher. Nine years later, when she moved to Michigan, Debra earned a Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of Michigan. Today, Debra organizes conferences and conducts workshops to provide training and support for educators and medical professionals on effective coaching, staff recruitment and training, and creating a culture of continuous improvement. She loves to read and enjoys the challenge of translating medical research into informative, easy-to-read articles. Debra spends her free time with her family, travelling, wandering through art fairs, and canoeing on the Huron River.
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