Researchers at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggest that infant mortality in the developing world can be reduced by 15 per cent by administering newly born babies a single, oral dose of vitamin A shortly after their birth.
"It has long been known that vitamin A supplementation can reduce mortality in children over 6 months of age. Our study showed that vitamin A given at birth can also improve infant survival within the first 6 months of life," said Dr. Rolf D.W. Klemm, lead author of the study publishe din the journal Pediatrics.
For the study, the researchers enrolled 15,937 newborns from rural communities in northwest Bangladesh, where over 90 percent of babies are born at home.
They randomly selected half the infants to receive a 50,000 IU dose of vitamin A, while the other half received a placebo. The vitamin A was given orally to the infants within a few days of birth, usually by seven hours after delivery.
The mortality rate for the vitamin A group was 38.5 deaths per 1,000 births, compared to 45.1 deaths per 1,000 births for the non-vitamin A group.
While vitamin A reduced infant deaths from all causes, lives were likely saved by reducing the severity of potentially fatal infections, which are responsible for most deaths in early infancy in South Asia.
"This study supports the findings of previous vitamin A studies in Southern Asia where the evidence is now strong that vitamin A given to newborns can dramatically reduce mortality," said study co-author Dr. Keith West, the George G. Graham Professor in Infant and Child Nutrition at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
"More studies are urgently needed to determine if newborn vitamin A supplementation would reduce mortality among infants in other regions, especially Africa," he added.
Kent R. Hill, assistant administrator for Global Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said: "We are excited by the results of this study, that build on two previous studies in South Asia, confirming this low cost intervention can significantly contribute to reducing mortality in the first 6 months of life. A key next step is to consider the operational issues for using this intervention."
USAID researchers have now joined forces with other experts to conduct research operations in Nepal and Bangladesh, so as to determine possible approaches for delivering vitamin A to newborn infants.
The control of vitamin A deficiency is a global goal of the World Health Organization and is considered one of the most cost-effective of all health interventions for saving young lives.
"Because childhood mortality is greatest during the first few months of life, a single dose of vitamin A administered by mouth to a newborn child can save the lives of an additional 300,000 children in Asia every year. That is on top of the one million lives a year that would be saved by dosing all vitamin A deficient children twice a year from six months through 5 years of age," said Dr. Alfred Sommer, professor and dean emeritus of the Bloomberg School of Public Health.