Preventing blindness and saving lives with vitamin A

Another great blog post for World Sight Day by Klaus Kraemer and Howard Schiffer

World Sight Day is a time to reflect back on the tremendous progress to date in addressing vitamin A deficiency, and to call on the global community to prioritize vitamin A supplementation so we can continue to prevent blindness and save lives. Although a simple, cost-effective solution exists, vitamin A deficiency remains the No. 1 cause of preventable blindness in children. It also claims an estimated 670,000 lives each year by weakening the immune system, increasing the risk of death from common diseases like measles and diarrhea.

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These cases of blindness and death are largely preventable. A simple, affordable and proven solution exists: supplementing children with vitamin A. While many health and development challenges are complex to tackle—they can be expensive and require multiple interventions—preventing vitamin A deficiency can be accomplished by reaching children 6 to 59 months with just one dose of vitamin A every six months. Vitamin Angels’ cost to reach one child for one year is just 25 cents.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 190 million preschool children worldwide suffer from vitamin A deficiency. One-quarter to half a million of these children become blind each year—and half of those die within 12 months of losing their sight.

Vitamin A deficiency is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Poor populations in these countries cannot afford or do not have access to foods rich in vitamin A, such as liver, egg yolk, dairy products, orange-colored fruit and vegetables and green leafy vegetables.

We’ve made tremendous progress to date—in 1999, only 16 percent of children were receiving the necessary two annual doses of vitamin A; by 2007, that figure had more than quadrupled to 72 percent. Today, in some countries, 100 percent coverage has been achieved. Sight and Life and Vitamin Angels are proud to participate, along with UNICEF, Micronutrient Initiative, national governments and others in implementing vitamin A supplementation programs in developing countries. In 2011 alone, Vitamin Angels provided more than 24 million infants and children under five in 38 countries with vitamin A. With collective global efforts, vitamin A supplementation programs are active in 103 countries.

These efforts don’t just save sight—they save lives. Vitamin A distribution has resulted in a 25 percent reduction in under-five child deaths.

SEE ALSO: Eye on Nutrition

Vitamin supplementation is not only low cost, it also has an incredibly high return on investment. Providing essential micronutrients, including vitamin A, to children is the single smartest way to invest global aid dollars, according to the 2012 Copenhagen Consensus panel of experts. They determined that every $1 spent on micronutrients for preschoolers generates $30 in benefits—an astounding return on investment.

We know that providing micronutrients to children is a low-cost, high-impact solution that prevents blindness and saves lives. This solution is ready to be further scaled up. Delivering vitamin A and other essential micronutrients to whole populations requires strong partnerships among governments, civil society, donors, aid agencies, local NGOs and business. More can be done to scale up the delivery of essential micronutrients, such as focusing on hard-to-reach populations, committing national resources, being transparent and holding each other accountable with evaluation metrics. Although much work has been done and great success has been achieved, we cannot become complacent; in the words of William Pollard, “The arrogance of success is to think that what we did yesterday is good enough for tomorrow.”

As we celebrate World Sight Day and more than a decade of successful vitamin A interventions, we look forward to a new decade of commitments and the role vitamins will continue to play in a healthy, prosperous global future.

Klaus Kraemer, Ph.D. is the director of Sight and Life, a non-profit humanitarian nutrition think tank of DSM, which cares about the world’s most vulnerable populations and exists to help improve their nutritional status. Acting as their advocates, Sight and Life guides original nutrition research, disseminates its findings and facilitates dialogue to bring about positive change. Sight and Life is currently celebrating their 100 Years of Vitamins campaign.

Howard Schiffer is the president and founder of Vitamin Angels, a non-profit organization that reduces child mortality worldwide by connecting infants and children under five with vital micronutrients, primarily vitamin A. In 2012, Vitamin Angels will reach approximately 25 million children in over 40 countries, including the U.S., with the micronutrients they need as a foundation for good health. To learn more, visit vitaminangels.org.

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