Mother and Child Undernutrition - Vitamin A Deficiency

Author(s): Ann Burgess

Undernutrition among mothers and children is the underlying cause of a third of all child deaths and more than 10% of the total global disease burden1. The situation is probably worse in Southern Sudan where rates of undernutrition are high2. The immediate causes of undernutrition are a nutrient-deficient diet and frequent infections. Here we describe vitamin A deficiency, future articles will cover other types of malnutrition.


Vitamin A Deficiency Disorders

 Worldwide vitamin A deficiency (VAD)a:

  •  Affects about 25% of young children with equatorial Africa (and probably Southern Sudan) having some of the highest rates1
  • Causes about 6% of young child deaths1
  •  Affects at least 6% of pregnant women3

a Footnote. Vitamin A deficiency is defined as 'liver stores of vitamin A of less than 20mcg/g’4

Groups at risk of VAD are those who have:

  • Diets lack vitamin A especially they are also low in fat – see Box 1.
  • Frequent infections - especially diarrhoea, measles, respiratory diseases, intestinal parasites and HIV. These infections reduce appetite, damage the gut and/or increase needs.
  • High needs (for their size) for vitamin A (e.g. young children and pregnant/lactating women5b)

Hence VAD is seen most often among young children, pregnant and lactating women, those with HIV, and, sometimes, people in emergency situations.

bFootnote. The units of retinol activity equivalents/day needed by: men are 600 mcg, young children 400 mcg, pregnant/breastfeeding women 800-850 mcg5.

VAD results in reduced immunity (so increased mortality from infections), anaemia (due to impaired transport of iron), poor growth and, in severe cases, xerophthalmia and blindness -  see Box 2.

 Box 1. About vitamin A

Vitamin A occurs mainly as ‘retinol’ in animal foods and as ‘ß-carotene’ in plant foodsc. The bio-availability of carotene is about 1/12 that of retinol but is improved if the food is cooked and the meal contains fat.

  Good sources include:

  • As retinol: liver from animals and fish, kidney, breastmilk and colostrum, milk fat/butter,  whole dried fish, egg yolk.
  • As ß-carotene: pumpkins and other orange fleshed vegetables (but not tomatoes), paw paws, mangoes, yellow bananas (if eaten in large amounts) and dark/medium green leaves.

c Footnote: Vitamin A is measured in ‘micrograms retinol activity equivalents’ (mcg RAE). Approximately 2 mcg ß-carotene in oil and 12 mcg ß-carotene in mixed food converts in the body to 1 mcg RAE. Vitamin A in pharmaceutical supplements may be measured in International units (IU). 1 IU = 0.3 mcg RAE.

Diagnosing VAD

Box 2 describes how to diagnose xerophthalmia. There are no simple tests for moderate VAD but in Southern Sudan VAD is likely to affect all at-risk groups especially at times when, or in places where, VAD-rich foods are scarce, or infection and malnutrition rates high. VAD is termed a significant health problem if:

  • At least 5% of women had night blindness during their previous live-birth pregnancy and/or
  • The under five year old death rate is >50 per 1 000 live births4.

Controlling VAD

Ways to control VAD include:

1. Encouraging the consumption of more vitamin A-rich foods (including breastmilk and colostrum). So discuss with community groups:

  • Why vitamin A-rich foods are important especially for women and young children.
  • Which local foods are rich in vitamin A, and are good value for money or easy to produce.
  • Practical ways to produce, preserve and cook these foods.

2. Giving vitamin A supplements.

3. Preventing infections. For example, by breastfeeding, immunisations, impregnated bednets and deworming.


Vitamin A supplements

Vitamin A supplements are usually given orally as high dose capsules. Table 1 shows a schedule to prevent vitamin A deficiency. Never normally give a high dose to a woman who might be pregnant because it can harm her foetus. It is safe for pregnant women to take low dose supplements and to eat plenty of vitamin A foods.

If a child has:

  • Prolonged or severe diarrhoea, acute respiratory infection, chicken pox, severe malnutrition and other severe infections, give one high dose as in Table 1 (unless the child has had a dose within the previous month). If the child is under 6 months give a single dose of 50,000 IU (one white capsule).
  • Measles but no eye signs give a second dose the following day.
  • Any signs of xerophthalmia and/or severe malnutrition give another dose after 2 weeks (see Box 2).

When giving high dose capsules:

  • Explain why they are needed and that they are safe.
  • Cut the capsule near its base of the nipple and squeeze the contents into the mouth.

Side effects (e.g. bulging fontanel or vomiting) are rare, and not serious or long lasting.


Table 1. Vitamin A Supplements to Prevent Vitamin A Deficiency



Type of capsule supplied by


 Infants 6 – 11 months

 100,000 IU

 Every 4 – 6 months

 Three drops from red capsule


 One blue capsule

 Children 12 – 59 months

 200,000 IU

 Every 4 – 6 months

 One red capsule


 Two blue capsules

 Post Partum Women

 200,000 IU single dose

 within 8 weeks of delivery

 One red capsule


 Two blue capsules

 Based on data in reference 6.


Giving a high dose vitamin A capsule (Source: SIGHT AND LIFE. Used with permission)



 The term ‘xerophthalmia’ describes all the eye signs of VAD – see Table 2.

Table 2. Signs of xerophthalmia



 Night blindness

Inability to see in dim light (e.g. at dawn or dusk). Often occurs in the later part of pregnancy.

 Conjunctival xerosis

The conjunctiva looks dry and slightly rough instead of smooth and shiny.

 Bitot's spots

White foamy patches on the conjunctiva. Not always present.

 Active corneal lesions: 

 At this stage the condition can worsen within a few hours and complete or partial blindness can result.

 Corneal xerosis

The cornea looks dry and cloudy.

 Ulcers on the cornea

Often on the edge of the cornea


The cornea is cloudy and soft like jelly. Rare.


To Diagnose:

  • Ask about night blindness. This is a useful sign especially if there is a local word for it.
  • Examine each eye very gently for the signs in Table 2.


To Treat:

  • If there are any signs of xerophthalmia give high dose vitamin A as in Table 3.
  • Active corneal lesions are a medical emergency so immediately start the treatment schedule in Table 3 - even for pregnant women. If you have no high-dose capsules give any other vitamin A supplement and refer.

If the eyes have ulcers or look soft or cloudy7:

  • Put 1 drop of 0.1% atropine into the affected eye to relax it and prevent the lens pushing out. Do this 3 times/day for 3-5 days.
  • Instil chloramphenicol or tetracycline eye drops (as required 2-3 hourly for 7-10 days). Never use ointment containing steroids.
  • Put 0.9% saline soaked pads on the affected eye(s) and bandage.
  • If necessary bandage the hands to prevent a child touching the eyes.


Table 3. Treatment schedule for those with xerophthamia or severe acute Malnutrition6


Vitamin A IU


Next Day (Day 2)

Day 14


 - Under 6 months

 - 6-11 months

 - 12 months and over 
















 All adults except












 Reproductive-age women 


10,000 daily or 25,000 weekly for at least 4 weeks

 *Unless received a dose in the previous month.

**Do give high doses to reproductive-age women if there are corneal lesions. Then the risk of blindness outweighs the risk of damage to the foetus if she is pregnant.


Child with severe xerophthalmia (Source: SIGHT AND LIFE. Used with Permission)


1. Black RE, Allen LH, Bhutta ZA, Caulfield LE, De Onis M, Ezzati M, Mathers C, Rivera J. Maternal and Child Undernutrition: Global and Regional Exposures and Health Consequences. Maternal and Child Undernutrition Series. The Lancet 2008; 371:243-260

2. UNICEF Update on the Nutrition Situation in Southern Sudan UNICEF report 2003

3. West K, Vitamin A: Public Health Implications of Deficiency and Prevention. As Reported in the Report of the First Meeting of the Micronutrient Forum, Istanbul. SIGHT AND LIFE magazine 3/2007 Supplement. 22.

4. IVACG, The Annecy Accords to Assess and Control Vitamin A Deficiency. 2002 International Vitamin A Consultative Group

5. FAO/WHO, Human Vitamin and Mineral Requirements. Report of a joint FAO/WHO expert consultation, Bangkok. Chapter 7. FAO 2002.

6. WHO/UNICEF/IVACG Task Force. Vitamin A supplements: A Guide to their Use in the Treatment and Prevention of Vitamin A Deficiency and Xerophthalmia 2nd edition WHO, Geneva 1997 (under revision).

7. Ashworth A, Burgess A, Caring for Severely Malnourished Children. 2003 Macmillan, Oxford

Useful websites on VAD:

Helen Keller International;
Micronutrient Initiative;
Micronutrient Forum;

Conflict of interest: None declared.

Thanks to:

  • Paluku Bakwere, Cicely Clarke, Nicky Dent, Philippe Donnen and Bertha Jackson for contacts and comments.

  • SIGHT AND LIFE ( for permission to use their photographs.