A Small Vitamin with a Huge Impact

Vitamin A can save millions of children’s lives
By Cara Lucas

Every year 670,000 children die and 350,000 go blind because they don’t get enough vitamin A.

It’s not so much of a problem in the US as it is in the at-risk populations in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. These children lack the nutrition sources necessary to maintain a healthy, happy youth. They can and do die from things like measles, malaria, acute respiratory tract infections, and diarrhea, maladies easily treated (or avoided altogether) in first-world countries. A vitamin A-deficient child is more likely to have a weak immune system, leaving them vulnerable to the types of illness and disease that are prevalent where they live.

The Copenhagen Consensus is a group of the world’s leading economists, including five Nobel laureates. In 2008, they named supplementation—specifically vitamin A and zinc—as the number one investment for addressing the world’s greatest problems. In 2012, the group once again identified micronutrient interventions as its first choice for responding to major global challenges.

Nobel laureate economist Vernon Smith said, “One of the most compelling investments is to get nutrients to the world’s undernourished. The benefits from doing so—in terms of increased health, schooling, and productivity—are tremendous.”

A nonprofit organization called Vitamin Angels was already on the case. Their programs work to reduce child mortality and sickness among the most vulnerable populations, including children without easy access to facility-based health services.

What is vitamin A?

Vitamin A is a micronutrient essential for proper immune function and maintenance of structural integrity of cells, both of which are vital for reducing the effects of infectious diseases. Vitamin A supplementation alone reduces mortality from all causes by about 24 percent in children under 5. Additionally, vitamin A supplementation reduces the risk of early signs of blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency by 68 percent.

Vitamin A is not made by the body, so it must be consumed in food or supplement form. In these specific at-risk areas, children lack access to vitamin A-rich foods either because they are not able to grow them or their families cannot afford to purchase them.

Affordable access to vitamin A

The Copenhagen Consensus identified vitamin A supplementation as its primary intervention in large part due to its tremendous benefit-cost ratio. The group estimated that $60 million a year could provide vitamin A and zinc to 80 percent of the world’s then 147 million vitamin A-deficient children, and that each dollar spent on supplementation creates over $17 in benefit.

Vitamin Angels will provide vitamin A supplementation to approximately 29.5 million children in 2013. Their cost to reach one child for one year with vitamin A is just 25 cents. This efficiency has earned them six four-star (highest) ratings from Charity Navigator for financial accountability and transparency.

In addition to delivering vitamin A, Vitamin Angels provides targeted technical assistance to their partners in the field and works to encourage local organizations to take responsibility for micronutrient deficiency and to create sustainable micronutrient supply and distribution systems by building local capacity.

Hidden hunger

It seems implausible—especially in our modern-day obese culture—but an epidemic called “hidden hunger” runs rampant. Hidden hunger is a deficiency of one or more vitamins or minerals (i.e., micronutrients).

Alleviating hidden hunger is an important goal because its consequences are devastating. Individuals who are chronically deficient in essential micronutrients suffer a number of health problems that can lead to immediate life-threatening conditions, and to a number of problems later in life—including impaired physical and cognitive development. Indeed, micronutrient deficiency is now linked to poor performance by children in school and linked to subsequent impaired economic performance of individuals. Micronutrient deficiency among infants and young children condemns them to poor health. For those who make it past 5 years of age, they are further condemned to likely underachievement both educationally and economically.

You can help: Focus on vitamin A

Universal supplementation of vitamin A is a simple and cost-efficient way to alleviate hidden hunger. Vitamin Angels provides a supplement of vitamin A twice a year to selected population groups (this is effective because excess vitamin A is stored in the liver, so twice-yearly doses are sufficient). Another program provides a daily multiple micronutrient supplement to infants, young children, and pregnant or nursing mothers. Unlike most vitamins, vitamin A is not a chewable daily vitamin; Instead, the tip of a small high dose capsule is cut off by a qualified healthcare provider and the contents are dripped into the child’s mouth.

This is a practical and affordable solution, that is, until foodstuff fortification happens and is accessible to all members of society—or, at the very least, until families have access to more food of higher quality.