Background: Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a major public health problem in low- and middle-income countries, affecting 190 million children under five years of age and leading to many adverse health consequences, including death. Based on prior evidence and a previous version of this review, the World Health Organization has continued to recommend vitamin A supplementation (VAS) for children aged 6 to 59 months. The last version of this review was published in 2017, and this is an updated version of that review.
Objectives: To assess the effects of vitamin A supplementation (VAS) for preventing morbidity and mortality in children aged six months to five years.
Search methods: We searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, six other databases, and two trials registers up to March 2021. We also checked reference lists and contacted relevant organisations and researchers to identify additional studies.
Selection criteria: Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and cluster-RCTs evaluating the effect of synthetic VAS in children aged six months to five years living in the community. We excluded studies involving children in hospital and children with disease or infection. We also excluded studies evaluating the effects of food fortification, consumption of vitamin A rich foods, or beta-carotene supplementation.
Data collection and analysis: For this update, two review authors independently assessed studies for inclusion resolving discrepancies by discussion. We performed meta-analyses for outcomes, including all-cause and cause-specific mortality, disease, vision, and side effects. We used the GRADE approach to assess the quality of the evidence.
Main results: The updated search identified no new RCTs. We identified 47 studies, involving approximately 1,223,856 children. Studies were set in 19 countries: 30 (63%) in Asia, 16 of these in India; 8 (17%) in Africa; 7 (15%) in Latin America, and 2 (4%) in Australia. About one-third of the studies were in urban/periurban settings, and half were in rural settings; the remaining studies did not clearly report settings. Most studies included equal numbers of girls and boys and lasted about one year. The mean age of the children was about 33 months. The included studies were at variable overall risk of bias; however, evidence for the primary outcome was at low risk of bias. A meta-analysis for all-cause mortality included 19 trials (1,202,382 children). At longest follow-up, there was a 12% observed reduction in the risk of all-cause mortality for VAS compared with control using a fixed-effect model (risk ratio (RR) 0.88, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.83 to 0.93; high-certainty evidence). Nine trials reported mortality due to diarrhoea and showed a 12% overall reduction for VAS (RR 0.88, 95% CI 0.79 to 0.98; 1,098,538 children; high-certainty evidence). There was no evidence of a difference for VAS on mortality due to measles (RR 0.88, 95% CI 0.69 to 1.11; 6 studies, 1,088,261 children; low-certainty evidence), respiratory disease (RR 0.98, 95% CI 0.86 to 1.12; 9 studies, 1,098,538 children; low-certainty evidence), and meningitis. VAS reduced the incidence of diarrhoea (RR 0.85, 95% CI 0.82 to 0.87; 15 studies, 77,946 children; low-certainty evidence), measles (RR 0.50, 95% CI 0.37 to 0.67; 6 studies, 19,566 children; moderate-certainty evidence), Bitot's spots (RR 0.42, 95% CI 0.33 to 0.53; 5 studies, 1,063,278 children; moderate-certainty evidence), night blindness (RR 0.32, 95% CI 0.21 to 0.50; 2 studies, 22,972 children; moderate-certainty evidence), and VAD (RR 0.71, 95% CI 0.65 to 0.78; 4 studies, 2262 children, moderate-certainty evidence). However, there was no evidence of a difference on incidence of respiratory disease (RR 0.99, 95% CI 0.92 to 1.06; 11 studies, 27,540 children; low-certainty evidence) or hospitalisations due to diarrhoea or pneumonia. There was an increased risk of vomiting within the first 48 hours of VAS (RR 1.97, 95% CI 1.44 to 2.69; 4 studies, 10,541 children; moderate-certainty evidence).
Authors' conclusions: This update identified no new eligible studies and the conclusions remain the same. VAS is associated with a clinically meaningful reduction in morbidity and mortality in children. Further placebo-controlled trials of VAS in children between six months and five years of age would not change the conclusions of this review, although studies that compare different doses and delivery mechanisms are needed. In populations with documented VAD, it would be unethical to conduct placebo-controlled trials.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT03383744.
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