In 2018, Vitamin Angels worked with around 60 field partners in Central America to provide vitamin A, prenatal multivitamins and albendazole (a deworming drug) to more than one million pregnant women and children under five. Working in six of the region's countries – Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama – the charity provided 975,000 women and children with high-dose vitamin A supplements and 160,635 pregnant women with multivitamins.
'Strategically focused' on reaching the unserved
Elizabeth Carrera, program manager for Vitamin Angels in Latin America and the Caribbean, said the organization's work in Central America, much like its work worldwide, was focused on serving pregnant women, new mothers, and children under five at risk of malnutrition and underserved.
“In regions where we work, access to nutritious foods and basic health services are limited. We're reaching children and mothers in need, particularly those living in areas classified by the World Health Organization as experiencing vitamin A deficiency or worm infections,” Carrera told NutraIngredients-LATAM.
Throughout Central America, she said national health services reached just 70% of the population, so Vitamin Angels was “strategically focused” on reaching the remaining 30% - many of whom were considerably remote.
“In the case of most countries in Central America, Vitamin Angels is able to partner with both local organizations and government agencies in a joint effort to reduce the coverage gap and reach as many beneficiaries as possible,” she said.
Vitamin Angels' goal for the future, Carrera said, was to support current partnerships but also strengthen regional programs and broaden its field partner network.
“Vitamin Angels is committed to building capacity for our field partners and their local communities through the continual development and dissemination of our technical materials, including videos, posters, and instruction sheets, to ensure the interventions we provide are distributed according to best practices. Key to this endeavor, is making Vitamin Angels' technical materials accessible in Spanish and through different platforms.
“Vitamin Angels hopes that, alongside our partners, our programs produce transformative change in the communities where they operate, by breaking the intergeneration cycle of malnutrition and, in doing so, producing healthy, happy families,” she said.
Targeting early childhood health
Providing vitamin A was a crucial part of the organization's work in Central America. In Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, for example, vitamin A deficiencies among pregnant women and children were considered moderate, according to Vitamin Angels.
“For children experiencing vitamin A deficiency, high dose vitamin A given once every four to six months helps reduce the prevalence of childhood infections, diarrhea, measles, and blindness. Vitamin A can reduce mortality rates in children aged six to 59 months by up to 24%,” Carrera said.
Providing albendazole as a chewable tablet together with vitamin A also played an important role in improving overall health for children in the region, she said.
Central America was a region endemic with soil-transmitted helminths, including roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms – all of which, if left untreated, caused abdominal pain and distention, increased susceptibility to serious infections, stunted growth, led to anemia, impaired cognitive development and compromised nutrition. A regular dose of the deworming drug, therefore, reduced the burden of worm infections among children and therefore allowed for better absorption of available nutrients, including the additional vitamin A provided, Carrera said.
For children under five in the region, stunting, wasting and underweight were key concerns, she said. In Guatemala, for example, 48% of children under five were wasting and 13% underweight. In Honduras and Nicaragua, 23% were wasting and 7% and 6% underweight, respectively. Stunting in the region affected between 1-3% of the population of children under five; the highest rates being in Belize.
Nutritional requirements for pregnant women
Carrera said for pregnant women in the region, anemia was a key health concern, affecting more than 50% in Belize and just over 30% in Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. The multivitamins provided to these women, she said, were formulated to standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF to ensure daily nutritional requirements were met.
“Evidence strongly suggests that among women who are undernourished, use of daily multivitamins reduces – even more than iron and folic acid alone – maternal anemia, the occurrence of low birth weight babies, and babies that are small for gestational age.”
A recent report from the Sight and Life Foundation and World Food Programme suggested anemia was the most important health problem among children and women of productive age in Latin America.
Scott Montgomery, director of the Food Fortification Initiative (FFI), previously told this publication fortification of staple cereals and grains was a key method to tackling deficiencies like anemia in Latin America.