In South Asia, they call it "chicken eyes." Since chickens can't see at night, they tend to hunker in a corner when the sun goes down. In countries without electricity, mothers and children with night blindness act the same. They can't move around at night, because they can't see.
For the afflicted, in South Asia, Africa, Central America or South America, Vitamin A is a miracle drug. A deficiency of Vitamin A is the leading cause of blindness for children in developing nations. Before their eyes dry up and they lose sight, they experience "chicken eyes."
Keith West, a professor of international health at Johns Hopkins University, has seen a single dose change a child's life overnight. Within 24 hours, on the next night "a child can find his food, can play with a ball, find his brothers and sisters, where the night before he was not able to do that." Nutrition is so poor in South Asia, said West, that as many as 20 percent of undernourished women develop night blindness in their third trimester. "It's so common, they think it's part of being pregnant."
Doses of Vitamin A (smaller doses administered more frequently) alleviate expecting mothers' "chicken eyes" within days. More importantly, researchers found that the supplements dealt with the most insidious part of Vitamin A deficiency, by giving women more resistance to disease and infection. Nepal's Vitamin A program reduced maternal mortality by 40 percent.
The cost is another miracle. In countries where every penny is important, a dose costs 2 cents and last six months. Four pennies, per year, per child. A 2-cent dose can turn around a small child, suffering from advanced corneal disease, which dries out the eyes. Such a child, West explained, arrives at a clinic, "his eyes usually shut because it's painful, he can't stand the light." But one gift of Vitamin A may improve his sight, restoring it in days, and help him fight off the infections that accompany malnourishment.
UNICEF administers about 400 million Vitamin A supplements annually. West notes that the capsules do more than cure children. Better yet, they prevent infections and diseases so that children don't become so weak that a bout of the measles can kill them. Children still die in developing countries, but where Vitamin A is given to children, some 25 percent fewer die. It is in the area of prevention that UNICEF's Vitamin A program performs the kindest miracles.
"You never know which child you're saving." said West.
And it's hard to think of a more economical way to save lives. UNICEF estimates that its Vitamin A program has saved 1 million lives since 1998. With your help, UNICEF can save and enhance more lives. If you want to save a life today, call 1-800-FOR-KIDS, log onto www.unicef.org, or send a check to U.S. Fund for UNICEF, Department WB, 333 East 38th Street, New York, NY 10016. You may stipulate that you are donating to the Vitamin A project.