Campaign to prevent child blindness, deaths

Twenty million children across Bangladesh aged 1-5 received Vitamin A capsules on 6 June as part of a national campaign to prevent childhood blindness and deaths.

The National Vitamin A Plus campaign conducted by Bangladesh’s Institute of Public Health and Nutrition (IPHN) also saw 19 million children aged 2-5 (of the 20 million above) receiving de-worming tablets, health officials report.

Foods high in Vitamin A include liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, mangoes, spinach, dried apricots, milk, and egg yolks. The campaign is being conducted because large numbers of children are poorly nourished and lack adequate food rich in Vitamin A.

“Vitamin A is essential in the development of healthy and intelligent children,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said at the campaign’s launch, adding: “Without healthy children, a nation cannot prosper.”

The capsules were administered by thousands of trained government health workers and volunteers at 120,000 health facilities, schools and other sites. Some 20,000 mobile centres were in operation across the country.

“Over 400,000 health workers and volunteers are working to make this initiative a success,” IPHN director Fatima Parveen Chowdhury told IRIN.

“We have opened mobile centres at bus stands, railway stations, [campaign] launch terminals and airports to ensure that every child receives the necessary dosage of Vitamin A,” she explained.

Photo: AO/IRIN
Thousands of health workers and volunteers took part in the campaign on Saturday

Preventing blindness

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) as the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness and a major public health concern.

While night blindness (the inability to see clearly in low light due to VAD or a retinal disorder) remains an issue for many countries in the region, Bangladesh is making inroads: The National Vitamin A Plus campaign provides 95 percent of children under five with Vitamin A supplements.

Night blindness among children under five has been reduced from 3.76 percent in 1983 to 0.04 percent in 2005, according to the last assessment, and is being maintained well below the WHO-recommended 1 percent threshold level, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported.

Saving lives, too

But Vitamin A can also save lives: According to UNICEF, an estimated 30,000 children’s lives are saved each year in Bangladesh by Vitamin A supplementation.

“Blindness is not the only major health risk from VAD. It also weakens the immune system which in turn renders the child more susceptible to other diseases like diarrhoea,” A.K.M. Azad Choudhury, a leading childcare specialist in Bangladesh, told IRIN.

Parasitic worms or helminths are the second leading cause of morbidity among children in Bangladesh after diarrhoea, say health experts. Helminth infection causes severe anaemia and malnutrition. But progress has been made here, too, with 85 percent of children aged 1-5 now getting anthelmintics - drugs which expel parasitic worms.

The National Vitamin A Plus campaign is a six-monthly event undertaken by the IPHN, under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW), with cooperation from WHO’s Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI).