Vitamin Angels Save Lives

ONCE IN A WHILE a simple solution comes along to a complicated problem, and since 1994 the non-profit organization Vitamin Angels has been working on a complicated problem. Every year an estimated 190 million children under five suffer from vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which can cause death and blindness. The lack of Vitamin A and other essential micronutrients in the diets’ of children and pregnant women throughout the world prevents proper physical and brain development robbing children of the tools they need to succeed in life.

The solution is a worldwide campaign to distribute vitamins and other nutritional supplements to at-risk populations. Howard B. Schiffer founded Vitamin Angels after a relief worker told him that 2 capsules of high dose vitamin A could prevent children from going blind and save lives. He was shocked. He had been selling vitamins for 14 years and had never realized that. Schiffer asked for clarification that two capsules a day can prevent a child from going blind and save lives. “No,” was the answer. “2 capsules a year.”

Using his contacts in the health food industry, Schiffer created a non-profit named Vitamin Angels to solicit donations. Then he found charitable and government organizations—already working in country on health issues—and asked if he could use their infrastructure to distribute the vitamins. Today Schiffer works in rural areas such as Southern Belize, with organizations like Belize’s Ministry of Health to distribute vitamins to women and children living in some of the world’s most remote areas. In 2010 alone, Vitamin Angels helped more than 20 million children in 40 countries around the globe.

The human body needs a mixture of minerals to grow and develop properly. Health professionals have identified 5 essential micronutrients: vitamin D for survival and sight; iodine for brain development; iron for brain and motor development; zinc to fight infections and diarrhea; and folate for fetal development. In 2010 Vitamin Angels and their partner agencies delivered 120,000,000 doses of essential micronutrients to more than 300,000 at-risk children and mothers in 26 countries, including the United States.

Malnutrition is a debilitating product of poverty. The poorest people in the world do not eat enough of nutrient-rich foods such as milk, eggs, meat, fish and fruits and vegetables. In the developed world, most of the staple household foods such as milk, sugar, cereals, oils and noodles are fortified with essential vitamins and minerals and have been for the past 50 years. But in developing nations, these foods are not fortified and are out of reach financially for large segments of the population. “Most people don’t know that chronic malnutrition is the underlying cause of death for more children than AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis,” says Vitamin Angels president Howard B. Schiffer. “The amazing thing is, malnutrition is solvable. We don’t need to do any research. We don’t have to try to find a cure. Just getting nutrients, especially vitamin A, out to children is the lowest cost, highest impact intervention you can provide.”

Published in Americas magazine by Chris Hardman