Epidemiological and clinical studies of vitamin A in Black South African pre-school children.
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The ocular complications of vitamin A deficiency have been known for many years, however, recent studies have suggested that marginal vitamin A status enlarges the risk of common childhood infections and increases mortality. It is therefore important to assess the vitamin A status, and some of its consequences, in children who are most likely to be at risk for vitamin A deficiency as this has important implications for promoting the health of children and for formulating appropriate primary health care policies. In South Africa very little data is available on vitamin A nutrition of communities; therefore one of the objectives of this research programme was to document the vitamin A status of African children who, because of historical inequities, are most likely to be at risk for deficiency. Sound, epidemiologically based surveys of vitamin A intake and body levels were conducted in a typical established township (using dietary intake as the measuring tool) and in a typical peri-urban informal settlement (using serum retinol and conjunctival impression cytology as the measuring tools). These studies revealed that the majority (97%) of children living in the established township surveyed had an adequate intake of vitamin A, whereas 44% of the children in the informal settlement had low serum retinol levels (20 ug/dL), and 18% had insufficient vitamin A, as assessed by 2 abnormal disc specimens, using the conjunctival impression cytology test. In order to investigate the interrelationsnips between vitamin A, other micronutrients and some risk factors, an analysis was undertaken of anthropometry, parasite infestation and blood concentrations of vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, albumin, haemaglobin, serum iron and ferritin and percent transferrin saturation. Significant positive correlations were found between serum retinol and all the biochemical indicators of iron metabolism studied except for serum ferritin. Ninety one percent of the children sampled were infested with parasites. These results highlight the fact that in this population close interconnections exist among nutrients and suggest that attempts at correcting vitamin A deficiency in such communities should be based on comprehensive intervention programmes rather than on single nutrient replacement. The impact of infections on blood levels of vitamin A was investigated in African children with severe measles. In addition, substances related to vitamin A metabolism such as other micronutrients (zinc, vitamin E) and proteins (retinol binding protein, prealbumin, albumin) were measured in serum. In addition the changes induced in these substances by vitamin A supplementation (offered in a randomised, double blind, placebo controlled trial) were studied. Serum retinol as well as the other nutrients measured were significantly reduced early in the exanthem in measles patients as compared to healthy controls. Vitamin A and prealbumin levels on day 8 (of the intervention trial) were significantly increased in the supplemented group compared to the placebo group. vitamin A levels in serum correlated with those of retinol binding protein (RBP), prealbumin and zinc. These findings strengthen the hypothesis that hyporetinaemia during measles is the consequence of impaired mobilisation of retinol stores from the liver. The effect of reversing the temporary lowering of serum retinol concentrations during acute measles infections by supplementation with vitamin A was investigated in a hospital based, randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial. The two groups were comparable in known covariates of measles severity : weight/age centiles; overcrowding; rash; total 90% of the patients had blood lymphocytes; serum levels pre-albumin, RBP, vitamins A and E. of zinc, albumin, hyporetinaemia. Integrated Morbidity Scores ( IMS) derived from diarrhoea, herpes and respiratory tract infection (radiologically confirmed) were assigned on day 8, at 6 weeks and 6 months - these were reduced by 82%, 61% and 85% respectively in the supplemented group. This was mainly due to reduced respiratory tract infection. There was one death in the placebo group. At 6 weeks there was significant weight gain in the supplemented group. Despite the selected sample, attention to multiple covariates enhances the validity of the data obtained and supports the current WHO recommendations for vitamin A supplementation during measles. There are several mechanisms by which vitamin A is thought to have its effect of reducing morbidity, one of which is by improving immune responsiveness. This particular mechanism has not been adequately studied in children; most of the studies having been conducted in animals. The effect of vitamin A supplementation on selected factors of immunity in African children with complicated measles was therefore investigated during the randomized double-blind, placebo controlled, intervention trial described above. Placebo and treated groups had similar baseline characteristics. In the treated group there was a significant increase in total number of lymphocytes (day 42, P = .05) and measles IgG antibody concentrations (day 8, p = .02), both of which have consistently been shown to correlate more closely with outcome in measles than other immunological, clinical and radiological factors. Interleukin-2 (IL-2) and plasma complement (C3 ) values were unaffected by vitamin A supplement.at.Lon , These findings reinforce results from animal studies which show that the pathways of vitamin A activity in decreasing morbidity and mortality are partly founded on selective immunopotentiation. In conclusion epidemiological and biochemical methods which were used to assess the vitamin A status of African children in South Africa revealed that overt vitamin A deficiency is not a Public health issue to the extent it is in the poor rice eating nations of the world. Marginal vitamin A deficiency is however prevalent in informal settlements. Interventions to reverse this marginal vitamin A deficiency should be incorporated in comprehensive programmes to ensure food security. Infections such as measles which increase utilisation and inhibit mobilisation from body stores are damaging to vitamin A homeostasis in the individual. The morbidity associated with measles can be reversed by high dose vitamin A supplementation during the acute phase of the infection. Improving immune responsiveness is one of the likely paths of vitamin A activity in decreasing morbidity from measles.