Study of Israeli baby formula tragedy highlights vital vitamin B1 role

TAU research of children who had been given Remedia brand as infants and healthy peers shows thiamine crucial for nervous system

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Newborns rest inside the nursery at Baby Lis. (Courtesy of Baby Lis via JTA)
Newborns rest inside the nursery at Baby Lis. (Courtesy of Baby Lis via JTA)

Israeli scientists studying the effects of a deadly 2003 tragedy where babies were given a faulty baby formula, have discovered how crucial a constant supply of thiamine — Vitamin B1 – is for child development, according to a statement from Tel Aviv University.

Three infants died and some 20 were left with severe disabilities after consuming non-dairy formula from batches of the Israeli-marketed brand Remedia sold between July 2003 and November 2003. The formula completely lacked Vitamin B1, which is essential for the nervous system.

In February 2013, Remedia’s chief food technologist was sentenced to 30 months in prison for negligent manslaughter in the case.

The study of the children who were given the bad formula as infants has found that a deficiency of thiamine severely affects motor function and balance skills in childhood.

The research, spanning some nine years and carried out by Prof. Aviva Fattal-Valevski — director of the Pediatric Neurology Unit at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center –surveyed the development of 39 children who had consumed the faulty formula, starting when they were aged five to six.

The study, published in Maternal and Child Nutrition, compared their performance to that of 30 healthy children of the same age.

The two groups showed significant differences in both fine and gross motor development, particularly in the former and in balance control.

The potentially-devastating effects of Vitamin B1 deficiency came to light in Israel following the Remedia disaster over a decade ago.

Infants were hospitalized with cardiac and neurological symptoms associated with the deficiency but it was a discussion by the children’s grandmothers in the waiting room that led to the conclusion that all had been given the same formula, according to the professor.

Babies at the Bikur Holim hospital in Jerusalem (photo credit: Flash90)
Illustrative photo of babies at the Bikur Holim Hospital in Jerusalem (Flash90)

With this realization, the infants were immediately given Vitamin B1 supplements and some recovered quickly.

“The body’s capacity for storing Vitamin B1 is limited,” Fattal-Valevski said.

“Unlike Vitamin B12, Vitamin B1 is only stored in the body for three weeks. It needs to be frequently replenished. It is critical to be aware of how important this vitamin is for child development,” she added.

“Even healthy babies might be at risk from B1 deficiency. If your infant is suffering from virus after virus, you must intervene with extra vitamins. But it’s a vicious cycle, because one of the first symptoms of lack of B1 in the system is an absence of appetite,” said Prof. Fattal-Valevski.

“Our study emphasizes the importance of proper infant feeding and regulatory control of breast milk substitutes,” Prof. Fattal-Valevski said.

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