August 24, 2005-- Posted at 2:50 PM CDT
(HealthDay News) -- New research suggests that an alternate blood test could allow doctors to detect many more cases of iron deficiency in infants, potentially preventing serious medical complications.
The alternate test detected about 83 percent of iron-deficiency cases, three times more than the current test, the study authors said.
It's too early in the research process for the test to be routinely used on babies, but the findings are promising and "definitely warrant further investigation," said study co-author Dr. Christina Ullrich, a fellow in pediatric hematology and oncology at Children's Hospital Boston.
The study findings appear in the Aug. 24-31 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
An estimated 10 percent of infants between 1 and 2 years old lack enough iron, a condition that can lead to anemia, in which too few red blood cells are produced and oxygen isn't distributed properly throughout the body. In the worst cases, low iron levels can cause neurological damage.
Several factors, including consumption of cow's milk during the first year of life and an inability to absorb iron properly, can result in an iron deficiency, the researchers said.
Doctors routinely test the iron levels of infants between the ages of 9 and 12 months as part of a larger group of blood tests, Ullrich said. The tests examine hemoglobin, a protein that carries iron in red blood cells.
The problem, Ullrich said, is that the cells tested live for 120 days. The tests aren't always precise enough to detect recent dips in iron levels, and it may take months for iron problems to appear, she said.
Enter the so-called CHr test, which Ullrich said has been used during the past decade to measure kidney function. The test examines hemoglobin in immature red blood cells, known as reticulocytes, that only remain in the bloodstream for 24 to 48 hours.
The study researchers gave both the traditional hemoglobin and the CHr tests to 200 healthy infants. Then the babies were retested using a much more precise test that isn't considered practical to use in routine screening.
The CHr test picked up iron deficiency 83 percent of the time, compared to 26 percent for the traditional test.
The findings suggest that CHr testing could be a valuable tool in detecting iron deficiency before it turns into anemia, which affects about 3 percent of infants, Ullrich said.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. Infants and toddlers are particularly vulnerable due to their rapid growth, increased demands for iron, and variable dietary intake, the researches said.
In many cases, iron deficiency is easily treated with dietary supplements, Ulrich added.
More research is still needed, Ulrich said, but it appears the CHr test wouldn't significantly raise the price of routine blood tests known as "complete blood count," or CBC.
By Randy Dotinga
To learn more about iron deficiency in infants, visit the American Academy of Family Physicians (www.aafp.org ).