SEATTLE — Vitamin A deficiency negatively impacts the health of 48 percent of children in sub-Saharan Africa. Helen Keller International’s vitamin A supplementation program treats vitamin A deficiency in developing countries through the mass distribution of vitamin A capsules to children in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. In 2016, Helen Keller International (HKI) treated 45 million children under five in 15 African countries with high-dosage vitamin A supplements.
Helen Keller International was co-founded in 1915 by George Kessler and Helen Keller, a leader in humanitarianism during the 20th century. Keller lost both her sight and hearing from an unknown illness before age two. However, she learned to communicate using various tools like Braille and touch-lip reading. With the help of her teacher Anne Sullivan, Keller attended Radcliffe College.
Keller was a pioneering philanthropist who focused on issues like women’s suffrage and improving the welfare of disabled citizens. With Kessler, Keller founded Helen Keller International to prevent and treat causes of blindness, particularly malnutrition.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), vitamin A deficiency is the top cause of avoidable blindness in children and increases the likelihood that minor infections will be fatal. Vitamin A deficiency also can cause stunting, anemia and xerophthalmia (dry eyes). WHO estimates that 250 million preschool-aged children are vitamin A deficient. Approximately 500,000 children go blind from the deficiency every year, with about half of these affected children dying within a year of losing eyesight.
Global health and economic experts, including the World Bank, consider vitamin A supplementation to be one of the most cost-effective and high-priority interventions. Vitamin A supplementation lowers child mortality rates by about 23 percent.
WHO recommends that all preschool-aged children in high-risk areas take high-dosage vitamin A supplements at least twice yearly. Excess vitamin A from high-dosage supplements can be stored in the body and used for several months following the treatment.
Helen Keller International combats vitamin A deficiency in developing countries by partnering with national governments to distribute supplements through two different methods. First, HKI and partner governments incorporate mass distribution of vitamin A supplements into broader national campaigns, like Child Health Days. Additionally, the organization sets up contact points where caretakers bring children every six months for high-dosage vitamin A supplements, eliminating the waiting period between mass distribution dates.
Each year, the organization distributes more than 100 million vitamin A capsules to children under five. Each supplement costs HKI approximately $0.75 to distribute.
HKI augments its vitamin A supplementation program with an educational campaign to encourage communities to consume more vitamin A in their diets. The organization initiates maternal and child nutrition education that encourages breastfeeding, a natural way for infants to get vitamin A. HKI also promotes increased consumption of vitamin A by fortifying staple food groups and by leading agricultural programs that produce vitamin A-rich foods.
– Katherine Parks