For maintenance of eye health, vitamin A is an important nutrient. Our body gets Vitamin A when we eat foods containing this vitamin. Lack of vitamin A causes eye diseases. It was found that vitamin A deficiency is the single greatest preventable cause of childhood blindness. People most at risk are children between six months to six years, pregnant women, and lactating women.
How is vitamin A important to the eye? Vitamin A maintains healthy cells in various structures of the eye and is required for converting light into nerve signals in the part of the eye called the retina. When vitamin A is not available to the body, gradual changes begin to affect the eye. The first sign of a problem is when a child or a pregnant or lactating woman finds it difficult to adjust to seeing in the dark. This condition is called night blindness.
Let us look at the case of four year old Nima from a village in Bangladesh. One bright summer afternoon, Nima and her older brother Karim were waiting for their hard-working parents to return from the fields. Nima was wearing an old but clean orange frock and was playing with her home-made dolls under the shade of the big tree.
Karim asked, "Hey, Nima, do you want to play 'hide and seek'? You can never catch me!"
Nima's face brightened with a lovely smile as she got up to take the challenge. She knew she could find Karim anywhere he hides. However, after three or four minutes when Nima couldn't find her tricky brother, she breezed into their dark and dungy store room at the back of the house. It was one of Karim's favorite hiding spots. Strangely, that day Nima could not see anything in the room. Then she heard a faint sound from a corner. Certain that it was Karim, she started walking fast towards the sound.
Then it happened. BOOM! CRASH! Nima found herself flat in the middle of a heap which felt like pieces of wood. Nima didn't know about the pile of firewood in the store room that her father kept before going to work that morning.
"OUCH! Karim, come! Where are you?", screamed Nima.
Karim came running and lifted his sister up, taking her to the main house. Luckily Nima only had a few scratches and bruises.
When their pregnant mother returned from the field, she allowed Nima to cuddle on her big tummy. Nima forgot about her pain and wanted to know when her little brother or sister would come out.
The next day, their friendly Lady Health Worker came to visit Nima's mother to check on her pregnancy. The Health worker noticed the scratches on Nima's forehead and asked, "What is the matter? Were you fighting with your brother?"
Nima's mother explained how she fell in the store room last evening. Nima's brother giggled and added mockingly, "She couldn't even see the pile of fire wood. Ha, ha!"
The health worker, who had been taking a course on eye diseases, looked at Nima's mother and wondered, "Did you notice if Nima has been finding it difficult to see when entering into a darker room from a brightly lit place?"
Nima's mother pondered for a minute and said, "Now that you ask, I think Nima has been falling down or bumping into things in the store room more often since she recovered from the measles recently."
The Health Worker looked concerned and said, "You should come to the clinic tomorrow because it is the day the doctor from the town visits our village. I think Nima is not able to adapt to seeing in the dark because she does not have enough vitamin A".
"What is vitamin A? What is going to happen to my Nima?" said the worried mother.
"Don't worry. It is good that I noticed the child at this time. It is not too late. Vitamin A is important for the eyes to work properly. So, when there is not enough vitamin A in the body over a period of time, the child gradually develops eye problems."
"What should I do now?" Nima's mother was almost in tears.
"Tomorrow, we will give vitamin A drops to Nima. It will correct the problem for now. We will also tell you about foods that you can give Nima and all of your other children to keep their eyes bright and healthy". With these words of hope, the Health Worker left.
The next day, Nima got vitamin A drops at the hospital. Her mother also learned about foods that contain vitamin A. After a few days, Nima felt well and was able to catch Karim without any problems, even when he was hiding in the dark store room!