Background: Clinical vitamin A deficiency affects millions of children worldwide, and subclinical deficiency is even more common. Supplemental vitamin A has been reported to reduce mortality among these children, but the results have been questioned.
Methods: We conducted a randomized, controlled, masked clinical trial for one year in southern India involving 15,419 preschool-age children who received either 8.7 mumol (8333 IU) of vitamin A and 46 mumol (20 mg) of vitamin E (the treated group) or vitamin E alone (the control group). Vitamin supplements were delivered weekly by community health volunteers who also recorded mortality and morbidity. Weekly contact was made with at least 88 percent of the children in both study groups. The base-line characteristics of the children were similar and documented a high prevalence of vitamin A deficiency and undernutrition.
Results: One hundred twenty-five deaths occurred, of which 117 were not accidental. The risk of death in the group treated with vitamin A was less than half that in the control group (relative risk, 0.46; 95 percent confidence interval, 0.30 to 0.71). The risk was most reduced among children under 3 years of age (6 to 11 months--relative risk, 0.28; 95 percent confidence interval, 0.09 to 0.85; 12 to 35 months--relative risk, 0.46; 95 percent confidence interval, 0.26 to 0.81) and among those who were chronically undernourished, as manifested by stunting (relative risk, 0.11; 95 percent confidence interval, 0.03 to 0.36). The symptom-specific risk of mortality was significantly associated with diarrhea, convulsions, and other infection-related symptoms.
Conclusions: The regular provision of a supplement of vitamin A to children, at a level potentially obtainable from foods, in an area where vitamin A deficiency and under-nutrition are documented public health problems contributed substantially to children's survival; mortality was reduced on average by 54 percent.