JOURNAL ARTICLE

Night blindness of pregnancy in rural Nepal—nutritional and health risks

P Christian, K P West, S K Khatry, J Katz, S R Shrestha, E K Pradhan, S C LeClerq, R P Pokhrel
International Journal of Epidemiology 1998, 27 (2): 231-7
9602403

BACKGROUND: Night blindness (XN) is the most common clinical symptom of vitamin A deficiency among children in developing countries. Yet little is known about the aetiology or associated risks of maternal XN. Emerging evidence from South East Asia suggests that it may be more frequent than previously thought in women of reproductive age, especially during pregnancy.

METHODS: A population-based, case-control study was conducted to reveal the epidemiology of XN among pregnant Nepali women. Night blind cases were identified by history through a weekly community surveillance system. Controls were randomly selected from a pool of pregnant women without XN and pair-matched for gestational age of the cases. A home-based assessment was done within a week of selection, at which 7-day food frequency and morbidity histories were collected, anthropometry measured, and capillary blood drawn for serum retinol, beta-carotene and haemoglobin (Hb) estimation.

RESULTS: Cases and controls did not differ by age or number of previous pregnancies. However, cases were more likely to be from the lower castes, be illiterate, live in poorer quality homes, and own no land. The mean serum retinol level of cases was approximately 0.30 mumol/l lower than controls (P < 0.001), indicating a low vitamin A status of night blind pregnant women. Mean Hb level was significantly lower (by 0.7 g/dl, P < 0.004), and the risk of severe anaemia (Hb < 7.0 g/dl) higher among cases than controls (odds ratio = 3.0, 95% CI: 1.25-7.23). Cases were more under-nourished than controls reflected by lower mean weight (-2.6 kg), body mass index (-0.8), arm circumference (-0.9 cm) and triceps skinfold (-0.8 mm). Night blindness was associated with less frequent consumption of preformed vitamin A (milk products, fish and meat) and provitamin A (dark green leafy vegetables and mangoes) foods, especially in summer. Night blind women were 2-3 times more likely to report symptoms of urinary/reproductive tract infections such as lower abdominal pain, painful and burning urination, or vaginal discharge, symptoms of diarrhoea/dysentery, of pre-eclampsia or eclampsia, and of nausea, vomiting or poor appetite throughout pregnancy than controls.

CONCLUSION: Women who experience XN during pregnancy have a low vitamin A status, although several other risk factors appear to cluster among these women as well. Night blind women are also more likely to be anaemic, ill, and acutely under-nourished, and to be consuming a nutritionally poorer diet in pregnancy than non-night blind pregnant women. A simple history of XN can identify women at high risk during pregnancy who may require special nutritional support, antenatal care and counselling.

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