By Alison McCook
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The breast-fed infants of two mothers who did not eat any animal products, including milk and eggs, developed brain abnormalities as a result of a vitamin-B12 deficiency, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (news - web sites) (CDC) reported Thursday.
The primary sources of vitamin B12, which is essential for brain development, are animal products like meat, dairy products and eggs. Since the mothers ate little or no animal products, too little vitamin B12 was transmitted to their children through breast milk, according to the CDC's Dr. Maria Elena Jefferds.
Jefferds added that these cases serve as a reminder to parents and pediatricians to ensure that both pregnant women and mothers who breast-feed their infants consume enough B12, either through diet or B12-containing supplements.
"You have to make sure you're getting it," she said, in reference to vitamin B12.
And don't abandon breast-feeding altogether, Jefferds cautioned. Breast-feeding has many advantages, and mothers who choose to not eat animal products should still continue to breast-feed their infants.
"Vegetarians should absolutely breast-feed, there's no question about that," she said.
In the January 31st issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Jefferds and her colleagues describe the cases of two babies who showed signs of brain abnormalities as a result of a deficiency in vitamin B12.
In one case, doctors examined and diagnosed the deficiency in a 15-month-old child with slow growth and mental development. Her mother said she had avoided consuming all animal products for many years, and had breast-fed the baby for 8 months after birth.
After receiving supplements of vitamin B12, the child began to improve, but was still below her age group in speech and language at 32 months of age.
Jefferds explained in an interview that many children fully recover from vitamin-B12 deficiencies but that, in some cases, a prolonged period of low consumption of vitamin B12 can cause irreversible damage.
"I think it really depends on how severe the deficiency was, and how long it was taking place for," she said.
She added that while both children described in the report showed lingering symptoms of low vitamin B12, over time, those impairments may disappear.
The initial symptoms of low vitamin B12 in infants are often vague and not obvious, Jefferds noted. She recommended that doctors keep the possibility of a deficiency "on their radar screen," and ask mothers if they eat animal products or take supplements that contain enough vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin.
Vegans eat only plant-based foods, using grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables to fill all their dietary needs. Vegetarians, on the other hand, typically avoid meat, but may eat some animal products, such as milk, eggs and possibly fish.
SOURCE: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2003;52:61-64.