For more than 100 years, Helen Keller International has been working in communities to deliver lifesaving health interventions and protect vulnerable people, particularly young children, from disease. Our work to deliver twice-yearly mass vitamin A supplementation to children under five has saved millions from impaired development, disease, blindness, and death.
These campaigns are usually run concurrently with door-to-door immunization campaigns. Running vitamin A and immunization campaigns together increases attendance—and therefore public health impact—and saves money.
In the last three months, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated economies, livelihoods, food security, nutrition, and health systems all over the world. The number of documented cases in Africa and parts of Asia is low for now, but it is increasing fast. An upsurge in those countries at the scale we have seen in China, Europe, and the United States would have devastating consequences. Most people would not have access to intensive care. Malnourished children and adults, their immunity lowered, would be at higher risk of severe disease. Hundreds of thousands of people could die from COVID-19.
During the current pandemic, mass health campaigns run the risk of spreading disease, and inadvertently putting children and health workers at risk. For this reason, on March 26, the World Health Organization’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts made a difficult decision: it recommended that countries temporarily suspend mass immunization campaigns against all vaccine-preventable diseases until the second half of the year to minimize the risk of inadvertently helping to spread COVID-19. However, in special circumstances, such as measles outbreaks, the group still recommended immunization campaigns.
This decision had a direct impact on the vitamin A distributions that run along with immunization campaigns. On April 9, the Global Alliance for Vitamin A (GAVA)—comprised of Helen Keller Intl, UNICEF, and Nutrition International—issued guidance to governments for safe delivery of vitamin A supplementation programs during the pandemic. The GAVA statement recommended the temporary suspension of mass vitamin A supplementation campaigns.
GAVA, with input from Helen Keller Intl, made the following additional recommendations for countries with existing vitamin A distribution programs:
- In areas where vitamin A is delivered through routine health services, rather than campaigns, this distribution should continue during the coronavirus pandemic, to the extent that is possible given local conditions.
- In areas where vaccination campaigns are carried out in response to disease outbreaks, vitamin A should be distributed along with vaccine.
- Countries should start planning now for intensified, catch-up Vitamin A campaigns, so that these can resume as soon as conditions allow.
Today, in light of this guidance, Helen Keller is working closely with governments and partners across Africa to keep vitamin A distribution–and other essential nutrition services–going where possible, and to prepare for catch-up campaigns. In the United States and across 19 countries in Africa and Asia, we are working to prevent the spread of COVID-19 with stringent precautions that include physical distancing, reduced contact with between staff and clients, and frequent handwashing.
Thank you to the very generous Helen Keller Intl community and all global citizens who help children live their healthiest lives. We appreciate your commitment to helping us spring back into action as soon it is safe to resume vitamin A supplementation campaigns and programs.