Tomorrow evening PBS will launch a major television series about global health.
They have already launched a comprensive "Rx for Survival" website, which has lots of interesting information, essays, maps, statistics, and other fodder for discussion.
The site emphasizes infectious diseases in developing nations. One of the non-infectious diseases that is shown to be leading killer the world over, including in the world's most modern countries, is malnutrition.
As the site explains, that is not the same as starvation, and in some cases it's quite the opposite:
Malnutrition (from the French mal, meaning "bad") doesn't just mean lack of food. It might surprise some to learn that it refers to obesity, too. In addition, malnutrition describes a lack of micronutrients, including a range of vitamins and minerals.
One of the most powerful micronutrients for child survival is vitamin A. Found naturally in carrots and green and yellow vegetables, or supplied in vitamin capsules or liquid drops taken orally, vitamin A can improve children's health by preventing deaths caused by diarrheal dehydration and measles, dry eye, and nightblindness. Severe deficiencies of vitamin A can ultimately result in total blindness. Vitamin A supplement pills or drops administered twice a year in Africa were able to avert approximately 400,000 cases of childhood blindness per year. Worldwide, it's estimated that the supplements are boosting children's immune systems and saving up to a million lives a year among children at risk of infectious disease.
Pregnant women also benefit from vitamin A supplements, which help reduce maternal mortality dramatically. In a study done in Nepal, maternal mortality rates dropped by more than one-third when women took vitamin A supplements during their pregnancies. It was famously said by nutritionist EV McCollum, who identified vitamin A in 1913, that "Green leafy vegetables are unbottled medicine."
Dr. Fuhrman echoes McCollum's sentiment, but is not a fan of vitamin A supplements. He advocates getting vitamin A from vegetables instead of supplements whenever possible. From a longer post discussing supplements, here's what Dr. Fuhrman has to say about Vitamin A:
Ingesting vitamin A or beta-carotene in isolation—from supplements, instead of from food—may interfere with the absorption of other crucially important carotenoids, such as lutein and lycopene, thus potentially increasing cancer risk.
The precursor to vitamin A, beta-carotene once was regarded as a safe and beneficial antioxidant and even recommended as an anti-cancer vitamin, but it has recently been shown to increase the risk of certain cancers when administered as an isolated supplement. Scientists now suspect that problems may result when beta-carotene is ingested without other carotenoids that would have been present had it been ingested from real food. Beta-carotene is only one of about 500 carotenoids that exist. Beta-carotene supplements are poor substitutes for the broad assortment of carotenoid compounds found in plants.