Saving children one vitamin at a time

Vitamin Angels is a non-profit, non-sectarian organization dedicated to providing basic nutrition and fighting Vitamin A deficiency childhood blindness around the world. Founded in 1994 by Howard Schiffer, the organization partners with nutrition industry companies, which provide monetary and product donations to help meet its goal of eradicating childhood blindness due to vitamin A deficiency by the year 2020. Vitamin Angels distributed more than 7 million vitamins to children and pregnant women in 2007 alone.

The worldwide statistics on Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) are alarming. It affects between 100 and 140 million children around the world every year. Of those, 250,000 to 500,000 go blind. The primary cause of VAD is chronic malnutrition from a lack of red, green, yellow, orange and leafy fruits and vegetables—foods rich in vitamin A.

The issue is finally receiving some of the attention it deserves. In May 2008, the Copenhagen Concensus, a priority rating of the world's biggest challenges by 50 top economists, put distribution of essential vitamins to undernourished children as the world's best investment. The concensus noted that providing Vitamin A capsules for infants under 2 and therapeutic zinc courses for infants 6-12 months has immediate and important consequences for the wellbeing of poor people around the world.

"Chronic malnutrition and poverty are the immediate crisis," says Schiffer. "This is a problem, but we know the solution today, and we can change lives dramatically."

Vitamin A can have a big impact on public health. Statistics show that supplementation of Vitamin A in deficient populations can reduce child mortality by 23 percent. It is most helpful for children under five who are most vulnerable and is especially important for babies under age one. While blindness is the most commonly known effect of vitamin A deficiency, children who are lacking this micronutrient may also suffer from infectious diseases such as measles, diarrhea and malaria. "The further we get into this," Schiffer says, "the more we see that blindness is just the sentinel marker. In the end, the malnourishment is taking their lives."

The Vitamin Angels plan is remarkably simple. The Blindness Prevention program administers two high doses of Vitamin A, along with two anti-parasitics, per child, per year.? The de-worming tablets are necessary, Schiffer explains, because, if the child has worms, the parasites will consume the Vitamin A before the child can absorb it. The cost of the vitamins and anti-parasitics as well as the logistics, education and administration is 25 cents per child per year. The total cost of the four year program is $1 per child.

But distribution of the vitamins is only part of the story. Schiffer spends tireless hours at his Santa Barbara office soliciting funding and product donations from companies like Johnson and Johnson, DSM, Vitamer and Fortitech. He is on the road at least once a month traveling around the world, talking about the program and making partnerships in all of the 18 countries in which Vitamin Angels operates. In its 14 years, the Vitamin Angels organization has distributed approximately 100 million vitamins around the world, to pregnant mothers in Bali, to combat rickets among children in Tibet, to the survivors of the 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia and to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The in-country partners are an essential part of the operation, and Schiffer is always making connections with local agencies to piggyback on their existing programs. These organizations, which include everything from village midwives to ministries of health and education, provide a local infrastructure keeping costs down and providing better navigation through town bureaucracies and easier acceptance with the villagers. "To expand and ramp up, you have to have a plan," Schiffer explains.? "Most partners have good intentions, but they often have no idea what it takes. The people who excel are the ones who keep asking questions and monitor what's happening."

Vitamin Angels relies heavily on its partners to educate local villagers about the purpose of the vitamins and to help with the distribution logistics. "We can't do our work without you," he tells the Believer's Church missionaries. "Women control healthcare at the village level," he explains. "It's the mothers, grandmas, and aunties who know who's pregnant and who's sick. We must get them involved."

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