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From promoting proper growth and development to boosting your vision, immune system and fertility, you need vitamin A to stay strong and healthy.
In nature, vitamin A is found as special substances in animal and plant sources (retinoids and carotenoids respectively). Carotenoids are called Provitamin A because your body converts them to retinol, an active form of vitamin A.
Because vitamin A is fat-soluble, your body stores the excess in the liver and other tissues. You develop vitamin A deficiency when you don't get enough vitamin A, and your body has used up its stores of it.
This article explains simply what African need to know about vitamin A deficiency; its causes, symptoms, complications and treatment.
You have vitamin A deficiency when your body lacks sufficient vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is among the most common micronutrient deficiencies globally, with more than 50% of all countries, mainly African and South-East Asian countries, battling it as a public health problem.
It's particularly common in:
You most likely have vitamin A deficiency if you notice any or a combination of the following:
The causes of vitamin A are:
Since your body can't make its own vitamin A, you need to eat various foods that contain vitamin A. You can get vitamin A deficiency when you don't eat enough of these foods.
Breastfed infants can develop vitamin A deficiency if their mothers don't get enough vitamin A.
Infections, such as measles and diarrhoea, can cause vitamin A deficiency. They can also make an already existing vitamin A deficiency worse.
Insufficient vitamin A intake, coupled with infections that affect your digestive system, is the most common cause of vitamin A globally.
Measles reduces the processing of vitamin A. It also hinders the absorption of vitamin A from your intestine.
Certain bowel (digestive system) conditions, such as inflammation of the intestines, improper functioning of some bowel-related organs and weight loss surgeries, can reduce vitamin A absorption and cause vitamin A insufficiency.
Your body needs zinc to absorb, process, transport and use vitamin A. So, Zinc deficiency usually occurs with vitamin A deficiency in developing countries with nutrition-related public health problems.
When left untreated, vitamin A deficiency causes several health problems, including:
Vitamin A deficiency causes a series of eye problems collectively called xerophthalmia.
These eye problems usually affect both eyes and can lead to permanent vision loss. According to WHO, vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. Every year, about 250,000 to 500,000 children with vitamin A deficiency become blind, and 50% of them die within one year of going blind.
Because vitamin A helps your body fight against infections, chronic vitamin A deficiency causes you to fall sick from infections frequently. Children with vitamin A deficiency are especially vulnerable to respiratory, diarrhoeal and measles infections. Severe cases may lead to death.
Phrynoderma causes itchy bumps or rashes on your elbows, knees, shoulders and buttocks that may spread to your arms, thighs, abdomen and back if left untreated. The skin on affected areas can become darker (hyperpigmentation) for a long time or form scars.
Chronic vitamin A deficiency contributes to:
To prevent vitamin A deficiency, you must eat foods that will give you sufficient amounts of vitamin A daily or take dietary supplements.
You can also eat food products like cereals and oils that are rich in vitamin A (e.g. palm oil) or fortified with vitamin A. To know if a product is enriched with vitamin A, check its label.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says, "Breastfeeding is the best way to protect babies from vitamin A deficiency and, in areas where vitamin A deficiency is a public health problem, vitamin A supplementation is recommended in infants and children 6-59 months of age."
Although pregnant women need vitamin A for themselves and their babies, too much is dangerous. However, as a pregnant mother, you should go for your antenatal checkups regularly to ensure that you and your baby are getting all the nutrients you need in healthy amounts.
Other people who are in danger of having vitamin A deficiency should get routine checkups to ensure they're maintaining sufficient vitamin A levels.
You should also limit your alcohol intake because excess alcohol increases your risk of nutrient deficiencies.
At the population level, large scale public health supplementation of staple foods like rice, cassava by-products, etc, during production or distribution with vitamin A is a preferred method of preventing vitamin A deficiency.
Healthcare professionals use your complaints (symptoms), nutrition history and blood tests to diagnose vitamin A deficiency.
WHO says, "The various stages of xerophthalmia are regarded both as disorders and clinical indicators of vitamin A deficiency. Night blindness (in which it is difficult or impossible to see in relatively low light) is one of the clinical signs of vitamin A deficiency, and is common during pregnancy in developing countries."
Since the form of vitamin A in your blood is mostly retinol, healthcare professionals can use it to determine how much vitamin A is in your body.
When using blood test;
NOTE: µg/dL means micrograms per decilitre.
Your healthcare professional will treat or help you manage any underlying health condition while ensuring your vitamin A levels increase.
You can increase your vitamin A levels by
However, vitamin A deficiency is commonly treated with a high dosage of vitamin A supplements.
Treatment cures early consequences of vitamin A deficiency, like the early stages of xerophthalmia. Late complications of vitamin A deficiency, such as keratomalacia and others, can cause incurable eye damage and lead to permanent blindness.
Vitamin A deficiency affects your eyes, ability to fight infections and general wellbeing. It can lead to blindness and death, but early diagnosis and treatment can prevent severe complications and facilitate good recovery.
You can prevent vitamin A deficiency by eating a well-balanced nutritious diet, taking recommended supplements, reducing alcohol consumption and properly managing any health condition that increases your risk of vitamin A deficiency.
Published: November 13, 2023
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