Each year more than 500,000 children in Third World countries lose their eyesight. The reason: their diets are deficient in vitamin A, contained in such foods as spinach and mangoes. In an effort to alleviate that tragic consequence of poor nutrition, officials in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines have launched vitamin A programs and have sought help from international specialists. Indeed, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) ranks vitamin A programs among its most urgent priorities. And the preliminary results of a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., suggest that the vitamin may be even more important than experts have realized. The U.S. researchers, who will publish their findings next year, found that regular large doses of vitamin A not only help to prevent childhood blindness but may also reduce childhood mortality by as much as 35 per cent in regions with vitamin A deficiency.
In 1982 Dr. Alfred Sommer, director of the Johns Hopkins International Center for Epidemiologic and Preventive Ophthalmology, in conjunction with the Indonesian government and the New York-based blindness prevention agency Helen Keller International, launched a vitamin A impact study on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. According to Johns Hopkins nutritionist and team member Keith West, researchers first examined 27,000 children under the age of 6. Then, trained local residents administered 200,000 units of vitamin A and 40 units of vitamin E—in single gelatin capsules—to about half the children at six-month intervals. A year later scientists re-examined all the children. Although West says that the data are still being analysed, he says preliminary results indicate that those children who received the vitamin A supplement suffered a mortality rate between 22 and 35 per cent less than children who did not take vitamin A.
According to a 1984 report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a government of Indonesia study among 4,000 children on the island of Java in 1978-79 had already revealed that vitamin A deficiency might increase the risk of infection in children. At that time, researchers reported that children suffering from eye disease as a result of vitamin A deficiency were two to three times more likely to suffer such ailments as respiratory
disease and diarrhea. In explaining their findings West and Sommers said that the vitamin may have a positive effect on the mucous membranes that line the respiratory, urinary and intestinal tracts and act as a barrier against bacterial infection.
Still, the Johns Hopkins scientists
say that further studies must be done to determine whether vitamin A supplements have a similar effect in other cultures. Added University of Toronto nutritionist George Beaton, who serves on the United Nations Advisory Committee on Nutrition: “Like many people, I am waiting eagerly for the published results. But because the effect was unexpected and because the study was not designed to establish the link between vitamin A and mortality, it is necessary to be cautious.”
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