Weekly vitamin A supplements can cut the childhood death rate in half in parts of the world where malnutrition is widespread, a study shows.

Doctors who conducted the study in India gave youngsters the same amount of vitamin A that they would get in a healthy diet. They found that this approach significantly reduced the death rate among those who were chronically malnourished.The United Nations estimates that 20 million to 40 million children have at least mild vitamin A deficiency, and nearly half of them live in India.

The latest study was conducted by Dr. Laxmi Rahmathullah and colleagues from Aravind Children's Hospital in Madurai, India. It was published in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Gerald T. Keusch of New England Medical Center called the results "positive, impressive and convincing."

He noted that the cost of the vitamin A was only about $2 a year, but that may still be too expensive for some developing nations.

"It is time that the international community did something more about this than talk," he wrote.

The study was conducted on 15,419 preschool children in southern India. They were randomly selected to receive vitamins A and E or vitamin E alone. The vitamins were dissolved in peanut oil and dispensed once a week by health volunteers.