4 Common vitamin deficiencies in African adults



By: Victoria Iyeduala (Freelance Health and Wellness Writer). Medically reviewed by the DLHA Team.


Vitamin deficiency, also called hypovitaminosis, is the lack of one or more vitamins in the body.

Vitamins are micronutrients that are essential for maintaining a healthy body.

You'll have health problems if your body isn't getting enough vitamins.

A healthy diet consisting of a variety of foods can cover your vitamin and mineral needs.

However, you may not be able to get the nutrients you need from your diet because of different reasons. This increases your risk of having micronutrient deficiency.

Reasons you may not get the vitamins you need from food include:

  • Lifestyle choices such as a busy schedule, diet restrictions (e.g. vegetarian or vegan diet) and alcohol use
  • Problems with the absorption of nutrients through the gut due to ageing, health conditions, surgery and medications
  • Allergies


This article will discuss the following four vitamin deficiencies that are common in African adults.

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin) and
  • Vitamin B9 (Folate)



Vitamin A deficiency

Vitamin A is among the most common nutrient deficiencies in Africa. In Eastern and Southern Africa, 53% of the population has vitamin A deficiency.

Vitamin A is critical in maintaining good eye, immune and bone health.

It also plays a role in keeping your organs and reproductive system healthy.

A lack of adequate vitamin A in your body can result in xerophthalmia. This is a series of eye problems caused by vitamin A deficiency. It causes dry eyes, bitot spots and impaired vision.

Night blindness is an indicator of vitamin A deficiency. People with night blindness cannot see clearly in dim light and at night.

Since vitamin A helps keep the reproductive system healthy, deficiency can cause fertility problems.

Other symptoms of vitamin A deficiency are frequent illness, especially throat and chest infections, and dry, itchy skin.

When treated early, symptoms gradually go away.

Vitamin A supplementation, in addition to a healthy diet, is an effective treatment for vitamin A deficiency.

If left untreated, vitamin A deficiency can cause irreversible blindness.

Although Vitamin A deficiency can affect anybody who doesn't eat a well-balanced diet, it is more common in children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers.

Liver is very rich in vitamin A. Other foods with vitamin A are:

  • Dairy products
  • Meat
  • Eggs
  • Fatty fish and fish liver oils
  • Red palm oil
  • Red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Vitamin A-enriched foods



Vitamin D deficiency

Research suggests that vitamin D deficiency is high in Africa. Three in five people have low vitamin D levels with the most common adult cases in women and people living in towns and cities.

Your body absorbs and uses calcium and phosphorus with the help of vitamin D. You need these minerals for healthy and strong bones. Vitamin D also supports muscle development and function.

Therefore, you'll experience bone and muscle issues if you're deficient in vitamin D.

Osteomalacia and rickets causes bow legs and knock kneesWhen vitamin D deficiency is left untreated, it can cause calcium and phosphorus deficiency and osteomalacia (called rickets when it affects children).

Osteomalacia is the weakening and softening of the bones. Weak and soft bones can easily break or become deformed.


Prolonged vitamin D deficiency also increases the risk of osteoporosis, a disease that causes bone weakness, in later life.

Although adults rarely experience symptoms, you may have vitamin D deficiency if you experience:

  • Pain in bones, muscles and joints
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Depression                                                                                                                 Click on image to enlarge


Vitamin D is also called the "sunshine vitamin" because exposing your skin to sunlight is the best way to get enough vitamin D.

Except for vitamin D-fortified food products, foods that contain adequate amounts of vitamin D are few. A good amount is found in fatty fish, meat and eggs.

Adults at risk of vitamin D deficiency are:

  • Dark-skinned people
  • The elderly
  • People who spend little time in the sun with much of their skin exposed to sunlight
  • Obese people
  • People who have problems absorbing and using vitamin D because of a disease or gastric bypass surgery.

Vitamin D deficiency can be treated with an improved diet, exposure to sunlight and supplements.



Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin) deficiency

Your body uses vitamin B12, also called cobalamin, to form red blood cells and DNA. It's also essential for the proper functioning of the brain and nerves.

A 2014 clinical review notes that vitamin B12 deficiency is high in African countries.

Vitamin B12 deficiency causes anaemia, a health condition where the body does not make enough red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body.

Shortness of breath, pounding heart, extreme tiredness, dizziness, pale skin and brittle nails are all signs of anaemia.

Since vitamin B12 plays a vital role in brain and nerve function, deficiency can cause damage to the nervous system.

Other symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency apart from anaemia include:

  • Numbness and tingling in hands and feet
  • Memory loss
  • Frequent headaches
  • Lack of concentration
  • Nausea
  • Weight loss
  • Hair loss


Symptoms improve with treatment of the underlying health condition, a healthy diet rich in vitamin B12 and supplementation.

Food sources of vitamin B12 are mostly animal products such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, and B12-enriched foods.

Older adults, people who eat a vegan or vegetarian diet and pregnant women have a high risk of having vitamin B12 deficiency.

According to research, 62% of pregnant women in Ethiopia who eat a vegetarian diet had vitamin B12 deficiency.


Others at risk of deficiency are people with a family history of vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia, who had gastric bypass surgery or have an underlying disease restricting their body's effective absorption and use of vitamin B12.



Folate (Vitamin B9) deficiency

Folate, also called vitamin B9, is another essential vitamin for red blood cells and DNA production. It's crucial in the growth, development and function of body cells.

A 2020 review identifies folate deficiency as a common micronutrient deficiency in Eastern and Southern Africa.

A recent study found that 78% of Ethiopian women had a low folate concentration.

Older adults, pregnant women, people who drink too much alcohol and people with malabsorption problems have a higher risk of being folate deficient.

Pregnant women need an increased amount of folate for themselves and their unborn babies. It helps the foetus grow healthy, reduces the risk of congenital disabilities that affect the brain and spine, and prevents pregnancy complications.


Symptoms of folate deficiency include:

  • Anaemia
  • Mouth sores
  • Sore tongue
  • Confusion and lack of concentration
  • Memory loss
  • Depression
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhoea


Folic acid supplements and a folate-rich diet can prevent and treat folate deficiency.

Examples of foods that contain folate are:

  • Meat
  • Fish and other seafood
  • Fruits and green vegetables
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beans
  • Whole grains
  • Fortified Foods



Vitamin deficiency causes a series of health problems. Research shows deficiencies in Vitamin A, D, B12 and B9 (folate) are common in African adults.

Pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, older adults and people with malabsorption disorders are at a higher risk of having vitamin deficiency.

Symptoms of deficiency improve when properly treated. Treatment for deficiency combines supplements and a nutrient-rich balanced diet.

Public health initiatives such as increasing availability of micronutrient supplements and food fortification have been introduced to reduce the prevalence of micronutrient deficiencies.

You should consult a doctor if you experience symptoms of vitamin deficiency or suspect you have a vitamin deficiency. 





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Published: March 17, 2023. Updated:October 16, 2023

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