Vitamin A supplements reduces child mortality by over 20 per cent

By Bobby Ramakant, CNS,

The vitamin A supplementation of infants and children can potentially reduce child mortality by over 20 per cent, said Howard B. Schiffer, founder and President of Vitamin Angels in an interactive community health literacy programme organized hardly 25 kilometers away from the state council house of Uttar Pradesh in India. I wonder if the policy makers in the state parliament were aware that a cost-effective intervention like vitamin A supplementation can reduce child mortality by over 20 per cent!

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The state of Uttar Pradesh qualifies for this vitamin A supplementation programme because of chronic malnutrition, high vitamin A deficiency prevalence, and high rates of infant and child mortality, informed Howard.

Vitamin A deficiency does its worst damage during childhood and is a major contributor to child mortality and illness. The most commonly known effect of vitamin A deficiency is blindness. Less well known is that vitamin A is also essential for functioning of the immune system. “Even before blindness occurs, vitamin A-deficient children are at risk of dying from infectious diseases such as measles, diarrhea and malaria” said Arulmony Thangaswamy, the President of Believers Church.

However when the Vitamin Angels began this initiative to save lives more than a decade ago, particularly of young children, they weren’t aware of the impact of this intervention – they knew the significance of providing vitamin A supplementation but the global mandate came only last year at the Copenhagen Consensus.

At the Copenhagen Consensus 2008, more than 50 economists have worked to find the best solutions to ten of the world’s biggest challenges. During the last week of May 2008, an expert panel of 8 top economists, including five Nobel Laureates, sat down to assess the research. Combating malnutrition among the 140 million children who are undernourished was ranked number one. Providing micronutrients for 80% of the 140 million children who lack essential vitamins would cost just USD 60 million per year, according to the analysis. More importantly, this action promises yearly benefits – in the form of better health, fewer deaths, increased future earnings, etc – of more than USD 1 billion. Each dollar has a return of USD 17 – making this an incredible investment for donor nations and organizations.

Vitamin Angels is committed to eradicating childhood blindness due to Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) on the planet by the year 2020, which is referred to as Operation 20/20. Vitamin A is critical for vision, bone growth and normal bodily development, and plays an active role in supporting a child’s immune system. Today, half of the children who go blind from Vitamin A deficiency die each year from opportunistic infections and otherwise non-life-threatening illnesses.

“In addition to the vitamin A, all the children will receive de-worming medicine to improve the absorption of the vitamin A and help combat intestinal parasites” informed Howard Schiffer. Delivering vitamin A capsules and de-worming tablets together makes sense for health reasons:
* Parasites will consume the vitamin A before the child can absorb it.
* Worm infections and vitamin A deficiency both have serious health repercussions for a growing child and cause infection and disease.

The evidence demonstrating how worm infections damage a child’s health is unambiguous: worm infections are associated with a significant loss of micronutrients. It can cause significant vitamin A mal-absorption, which can aggravate malnutrition and anemia rates and contribute to retarded growth. A child’s physical fitness and appetite are negatively affected and his/ her cognitive performance at school is compromised. The constant and life long immune activation due to worm infections reduces the body’s capacity to resist other infections.Therefore to complement the impact of these simple health interventions, vitamin Angels are providing vitamin A supplementation along with the de-worming tablets.

Jojo Mathews, from Believers Church in Lucknow where the health camp was organized, had contributed immensely in mobilizing people from the neighbouring communities to benefit from this health initiative. Many children were administered vitamin A and de-worming pills. Hundreds of people from neighbouring area were benefiting from this initiative. Hardly half-a kilometer away from this church which was catering to the health needs of the community, stands the majestic premises of a state-of-the-art super-speciality medical institute. This indeed poses a question whether our health programmes are meeting people’s need, and investing resources optimally?

(The author is a World Health Organization (WHO)’s WNTD Awardee (2008) and writes extensively on health and development. He can be contacted at: [email protected])