Vitamin A supplements can reduce complications from measles by one third and death rates from the disease by more than 50 percent, according to a study by South African doctors published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study involved 189 children, all hospitalized with the disease, who were treated with injections of 120 milligrams of vitamin A. Those who received additional vitamin A suffered fewer deaths and recovered more quickly from pneumonia and diarrhea than those who did not.

Because many children are never immunized, particularly in Third World countries, measles remains one of the most common causes of childhood death in the world. About 70 million cases and 2 million deaths are reported annually. Many more are blinded or suffer other long-term disabilities.

Physicians have long speculated that measles may deplete the body of vitamin A, producing a condition known as hyporetinemia, which is linked to an increased risk of death. Once a child contracts measles, doctors have had little to offer in the way of treatment.

Children younger than age 2 are at greatest risk for measles complications, because they store less vitamin A in their bodies. Since Vitamin A seems to reduce the severity of measles, the physicians from the University of Cape Town recommend, all children with severe measles should be given Vitamin A supplements.