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Half our kids lack Vitamin A Print E-mail

Katharine Child -   The Times Monday August 12th 2013

Almost half of preschool children in South Africa have a vitamin A deficiency that puts them at risk of illness and stunted growth.

The low levels of vitamin A were found in a recent Human Sciences Research Council health study in which researchers took blood samples from children aged two to five nationwide.

Professor Ali Dhansey, of the Medical Research Council, said a lack of vitamin A weakens the immune system, putting children at risk of frequent "diarrhoeal diseases and respiratory infections".

They are also more likely to be stunted.  26% of children aged between one and three are below average height for their age, and 9.5% are severely retarded in their growth.

Dietician Ina Nortje said children who were vitamin A-deficient developed mouth ulcers, poor night vision, dry flaky skin, dandruff and frequently contract colds and other infections.

She said vitamin A and other vitamins were removed from processed foods because they reduced the products' shelf life.

By law, vitamins and iron have to be added to maize.

But a public health specialist at the Centre for Disease Control, Jacqueline Pienaar, said rural people were so poor that they could not buy fortified maize but instead were forced to eat home-grown produce.

Though the figures for vitamin A deficiency in preschool children have improved since 2005, when they were at 63%, Basil Kransdorff, a Johannesburg industrial chemist, said the government's 12-year-old policy of mandatory food fortification was not working.

"If it were we wouldn't see these high levels of deficiency and anaemia."

He said vitamin A in maize was destroyed by cooking.

Kransdorff invented e-Pap. A cheap, fortified maize containing easily digestible minerals.  More than two million people across Africa eat this cereal.

NGOs that use it say it benefits children and that they exhibit improved resistance to infection.

Professor Dhansey said breast-feeding would counter vitamin deficiency.

"Breast-feeding of infants and young children, and the consumption of fortified maize by both women and children, can help."

Only 8% of children in South Africa are exclusively breast-fed until the age of six months, which is one of the lowest rates in the world.

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