Vitamin A deficiency in Bangladesh: a review and recommendations for improvement

F Ahmed
Public Health Nutrition 1999, 2 (1): 1-14

OBJECTIVE: This article provides a comprehensive review of the change in vitamin A status and the extent of vitamin A deficiency among different population groups in Bangladesh up to the present time. The result of experience with different strategies and interventions designed to improve vitamin A status are then reviewed, leading to a discussion of key options for action, as well as important areas for research and evaluation.

DESIGN AND SETTING: All the available data have been examined in detail, including data from nationally representative samples and nationwide surveys, as well as small studies in different population groups. Reports on the effectiveness of different intervention programmes have been used.

RESULTS: Over the past three decades a number of studies, which include national nutrition surveys, have been carried out to investigate the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency among different population groups in Bangladesh, and they have demonstrated a significant public health problem. Studies have shown that the prevalence of severe deficiency, based on the prevalence of night blindness in preschool children, decreased from 3.6% in 1982-83 to 1.78% in 1989 and 0.6% in 1996. However, there is still a high prevalence of subclinical vitamin A deficiency, based on the biochemical assessment of serum retinol levels in preschool children, estimated mainly from hospital-based groups. Night blindness and Bitot's spot are also found to exist among school-age children and adolescents. Recent reports indicate that night blindness among rural mothers is as high as 1.4%. Only a limited number of studies, with small sample sizes, are available where serum retinol has been reported for school-age children, adolescents and pregnant women. Nevertheless, these studies confirm the presence of low levels of serum retinol and hence, the existence of subclinical vitamin A deficiency. Furthermore, the dietary intake of vitamin A in each population group has been found to be less than the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), indicating a significant risk of deficient intakes of vitamin A. To address the problem of vitamin A deficiency, the government of Bangladesh started the Nutritional Blindness Programme in 1973. The main activities of the programme include vitamin A capsule (VAC) supplementation to children of 6 months to 6 years old, nutrition education to increase the production and consumption of vitamin A rich foods, and training of primary health-care workers on the clinical diagnosis and treatment of vitamin A deficiency, VAC distribution and nutrition education. Since 1988, as a long-term strategy, Helen Keller International has been implementing community home gardening promotion projects. To date, the possibility that foods may be fortified with vitamin A, has not been explored as a possible approach in Bangladesh.

CONCLUSION: Although short- to long-term prevention and control programmes are to some extent in place, to improve the situation of vitamin A deficiency, Bangladesh needs a more appropriate mix of interventions for the entire population. More operational research and evaluation are needed if a fully effective programme to alleviate the problem of vitamin A deficiency is to be developed. Finally, to achieve the goal of virtual elimination of vitamin A deficiency will require an integrated approach which brings together appropriate actions at every level, within and across the many sectors of society.

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