Is it time for South Africa to end the routine high-dose vitamin A supplementation programme?
In accordance with World Health Organization guidelines, South Africa (SA) introduced routine periodic high-dose vitamin A supplementation (VAS) in 2002. These guidelines were developed after research in the 1980s and 1990s showed the efficacy of VAS in reducing childhood mortality. However, two recent studies in low- to middle-income countries (2013 and 2014) have shown no effect of high-dose VAS on mortality. Additionally, there is no clear research evidence that 6-monthly doses of vitamin A result in a sustained shift in serum retinol levels or reduce subclinical vitamin A deficiency. These two points should encourage SA to re-examine the validity of these guidelines. A long-term view of what is in the best interests of the majority of the people is needed. The short-term intervention of administering vitamin A capsules not only fails to improve serum retinol levels but may create dependence on a ‘technical fix’ to address the fundamental problem of poor nutrition, which is ultimately underpinned by poverty. It may also cause harm. Although there are those, some with vested interests, who will argue for continuation of the routine high-dose VAS programmes, SA policymakers and scientists need to evaluate the facts and be prepared to rethink this policy. There is cause for optimism: SA’s health policymakers have previously taken bold stands on the basis of evidence. The examples of regulation of tobacco products and taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages, ending the free distribution of formula milk for HIV-positive mothers and legislating against the marketing of breastmilk substitutes provide precedents. Here is a time yet again for decision-makers to make bold choices in the interests of the people of SA. While the cleanest choice would be national discontinuation of the routine VAS programme, there may be other possibilities, such as first stopping the programme in Northern Cape Province (where there is clear evidence of hypervitaminosis A), followed by the other provinces in time.
A Coutsoudis, School of Clinical Medicine, College of Health Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
D Sanders, School of Public Health, Faculty of Community and Health Sciences, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa
M A Dhansay, Burden of Disease Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council, Cape Town, South Africa; Division of Human Nutrition, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa; Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa
M E van Stuijvenberg, Division of Human Nutrition, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa; Non-Communicable Diseases Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council, Cape Town, South Africa
C S Benn, Bandim Health Project, Institute of Clinical Research, University of Southern Denmark, Odense C, Denmark
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Date published: 2019-11-27
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