Vitamin Angels: Saving the world with vitamins

Vitamin A packs a powerful punch. Two simple yearly doses of a small red pill, available for merely cents, can boost children’s immune systems, prevent blindness and maybe even save their lives. One in every three children is undernourished. Saving these children is the mission of Vitamin Angels, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing supplements to at-risk children in countries around the globe.

Vitamin Angels was born out of the wake of the 1994 Northridge earthquakes in Southern California. After working in the natural products industry for years but feeling he could be doing more, founder Howard Schiffer was contacted by a relief agency aiding earthquake victims. Concerned by the many displaced people huddled in tents in bad conditions, the agency sought to prevent children from getting sick by providing free supplements.

Schiffer made some calls and soon generated a truckload of vitamins. The relief agency was blown away. The idea to develop an organization that would provide supplements to children in need began to germinate. After the dust from the earthquake settled three weeks later, he partnered with the relief agency to create just that: Vitamin Angels.

More than 2 billion people around the world are deficient in critical nutrients, with expecting mothers and children under five especially hard hit. Vitamin Angels’ mission is to bring together private sector resources to increase access to micronutrients for at-risk populations. By providing essential nutrients to children under age 5, the organization decreases child mortality in 40 countries, boosting the immune system’s ability to fight infectious diseases and creating a foundation for good health.

For the approximately 190 million children under age five who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, the chance to receive supplements means the chance to reach their full physical and mental development.

“With better nutrition, children perform better in school and are able to actually go to school sometimes … As they do better in school, they have a better opportunity to grow up and break the cycle of poverty. It is a long-term investment in the health and wellbeing of children growing up into productive individuals,” Kim Saam, communications manager at Vitamin Angels, said.

A project in Laos that provided supplements to preschoolers, for example, discovered that the children “woke up” after taking daily vitamins.

Through its Operation 20/20 campaign, Vitamin Angels reaches 24 million children each year with a high dose of Vitamin A. At a lowly cost of 25 cents per child per year, this Vitamin A intake is able to reduce child mortality in at-risk populations by 24 percent.

Vitamin A deficiency can lead to permanent, irreversible blindness. Children lacking in Vitamin A experience lower and underdeveloped immune systems, making them more susceptible to life-threatening diseases such as measles and malaria, common in developing countries. A simple routine of vitamins can therefore make a dramatic difference in a child’s health. Vitamin A dosing has also been able to reverse early onset blindness.

“It’s a very cost-effective public health intervention that’s been cited as one of the best investments in global health by the Copenhagen Consensus, which is a group of economists who gathered to address global needs in 2008, and they identified Vitamin A supplementation as the number one intervention for bang for your buck,” Saam said.

The charity also operates a Thrive to Five multivitamin initiative for children and pregnant or lactating women that has reached 430,975 individuals in 2011.

“The goal is to start at the very beginning and make sure that the mom has the nutrition she needs to have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy birth and that the child is healthy from the get-go all the way through the developmental years,” Saam explained.

Administered to children as a liquid, Vitamin A is then stored in the liver. A high dose can therefore make a long-term difference as it is slowly released over time. Saam explained that, because Vitamin A is not produced by the body, “if you don’t ingest it, you can’t get it.” For the many who lack the means to purchase foods rich in Vitamin A or live in a climate where such foods do not grow, providing Vitamin A is a critical intervention.

“Anyone can donate 25 cents,” Saam declared. “You can make a huge impact in the life of a child for nothing, basically. We are very passionate and committed about what we are doing, and I think we’re very relevant in terms of being something that is important to a lot of people. Everybody connects with health in one way or another, and whether we take nutrition for granted or not, it is something where we understand that children deserve the right to have basic nutrition.”

Baby Jenny was born a few months premature. Weighing only 2.5 pounds, she was barely the size of an adult hand. With aid from Vitamin Angels, Jenny’s mother was able to receive postnatal care while she was breastfeeding. Although things could have gone very differently, Jenny is now a happy, healthy girl.

For a mother in Kenya, Vitamin Angels was her salvation. After receiving prenatal supplements, she delivered a healthy baby, bigger and healthier than her previous children. This was a marked contrast to her other pregnancies, when she craved soil just to satisfy her need for minerals.

“We are playing a small role in making sure children around the world are getting that first chance,” Saam maintained.

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