There’s a great book about vitamin A, “Brilliance & Confusion: Saving Children’s Vision & Lives With Vitamin A”. Okay, I confess. It’s my own book a couple of years ago. Vitamin A was discovered in 1913, but it has continued to provide surprises since. The most important of these is that it isn’t essential just for vision, which is what most people know about it. Rather, it is needed to maintain many functions necessary for health, and life itself. Children are particularly susceptible to vitamin A deficiency. The need for vitamin A is easily met by diets in advanced countries, but is a real problem in the developing world. Its broader functions, including its “anti-infection” activity, was discovered by the 1930s, and was then re-discovered fifty years later. The mechanism behind its life-essential nature is now understood in molecular detail.
There are several ways in which international agencies are attempting to provide vitamin A to children and pregnant women in the developing world. Vitamin A capsules can work, but coverage is never complete. Newer solutions include growing orange sweet potatoes in sub-Saharan Africa. This vegetable, and others such as carrots and spinach, contains large amounts of beta-carotene, and can meet the requirements for vitamin A in a completely safe way. A much more controversial solution for the three billion people in the world who depend on rice for most of their calories is “Golden Rice”, a genetically-engineered food plant. This approach has been heavily, and repeatedly, challenged by organizations such as Greenpeace. It’s complicated. Check out the book at Amazon. Read the first part of the book right now.