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Ottawa, CANADA – Nutrition International, with funding from the Government of Canada, is launching an emergency response initiative to boost vitamin A supplementation (VAS) coverage in some of the highest-need countries in Africa where VAS has been disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDN $29.5 million program aims to reach up to 35 million children under five with two high-dose vitamin A supplements four to six months apart.

VAS is a high-impact, low-cost nutrition intervention, with a proven ability to protect against childhood illnesses such as measles and diarrhoea, reducing the risk of death in children under five by up to 12% in countries with high levels of vitamin A deficiency and could be as high as 24% in some specific settings or subgroups of the population where vitamin A deficiency is extremely high. During COVID-19, when access to health services is often limited, it is even more important that children receive their twice-yearly dose. Good nutrition is essential for strong immune systems and vaccine efficacy. Protecting children with vitamin A is important to ensure a successful pandemic response.

“Immune system strength is one of the world’s most precious resources.”

Due to COVID-19 mitigation measures, such as physical distancing, movement restrictions and the prohibition of large group gatherings, many countries have had to postpone their vaccination campaigns, bi-annual child health events and limit other outreach activities where VAS is normally delivered. An estimated 100 million children missed their first round of VAS in 2020, increasing the risk of child mortality and threatening to undo years of work by countries to improve VAS delivery.

“This pandemic has not only interrupted the delivery of lifesaving nutrition and health interventions to people that need them most, but it has stretched the capabilities and resources of many governments to the breaking point,” said Joel Spicer, president and CEO of Nutrition International. “Immune system strength is one of the world’s most precious resources – and vitamin A is essential, particularly for children, in helping them fight off infection and disease.”

As countries across Africa grapple with the ongoing effects of the pandemic, Nutrition International will support government efforts and ensure that health workers are trained, equipped and supported to deliver VAS safely, protecting both health workers and the families they come in contact with. This includes ensuring that appropriate safety protocols and job aides are in place, that health workers have been trained on the new protocols and administration guidelines, and protective equipment, like masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, are available.

Nutrition International will also work closely with governments to optimize efficiencies in delivery platforms wherever possible, identifying opportunities where packages of essential child survival services along with vitamin A, including nutrition screening, deworming, and catch-up for routine immunizations, such as measles can be delivered.

“As the world looks to recover from this pandemic, we must ensure access to nutrition remains a top priority,” said Karina Gould, Canada’s Minister of International Development. “Nutrition International’s critical work on vitamin A and other Nutrition for Growth efforts will be essential in fighting hunger and malnutrition and ensuring children have a healthy and positive future. “

Nutrition International was selected to lead the program due to its decades-long expertise and leadership in vitamin A. Since 1997, Nutrition International, with support from the Government of Canada, has ensured the availability of high-quality vitamin A capsules. Every year, Nutrition International donates sufficient capsule supply to meet 100% of the needs of eligible countries. This represents more than 80% of the world’s capsule need – and more than 400 million capsules annually.

For almost 30 years, Nutrition International has been making gains in child survival and helping bring together key international stakeholders to recommend and guide new policy, improve local health system capacity to deliver vitamin A to children under five, and innovate to improve coverage for hard-to-reach children.

“As the world looks to recovery from this pandemic, we must ensure access to nutrition remains a top priority.”

“We are so excited about this opportunity as it is coming at the right time” said Dr. Charles Mwansambo, Secretary for Health, Malawi. “We are planning our first round of Child Health campaign activities in May. We look forward to this partnership.”

Canada’s funding was initially announced at the launch of the Nutrition Year of Action in December 2020, which saw more than US $3 billion pledged to address global malnutrition. The event was an opportunity to build momentum for increased commitments for nutrition ahead of the December 2021 Nutrition for Growth Summit in Tokyo.