After I started Vitamin Angels, it was obvious that part of our efforts should focus on supporting the health of mothers and their babies. From the start, I’ve advocated for using a prenatal supplement with multiple micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) for pregnant moms. This is contrary to the standard iron and folic acid recommendation from the World Health Organization and most governments. But I had seen the results for myself, and I knew what a difference they had made.
Globally, the conditions are much worse than anything I had seen as a midwife. The statistics are dire; sometimes as many as one in thirty women die during childbirth. Seven thousand newborns die every day (and 80% from preventable causes!) It was a serious wake-up call for me to realize that in many places around the world the act of giving birth, or even just being a newborn, can be life-threatening.
The women we are reaching are truly the most vulnerable women on the planet today. They’re more affected by the global economy than anyone else. When the price of gas rose years ago, I remember the women in Guatemala telling me that the price of corn had doubled, and as a result, they might only feed their children one or two meals a day instead of three. These women are the most affected by climate change. When crops fail from drought or flooding, they don’t eat – there’s a time of year in Africa that's literally called ‘the hunger season.’ These women are disproportionately affected by malnutrition, lack of access to basic services, poor sanitation, contaminated water, the list goes on. So when they’re pregnant, their situation becomes more untenable. The shocking thing to me is that it doesn’t take that much to start changing things in the most basic way. A healthy baby gives a woman and her family hope. A healthy baby means that population density can decrease (yes it’s true. When infant and child mortality goes down, birth rates decrease as well. When women don’t feel like they have to have ten babies to have four survive, they start having smaller families). And a healthy baby means a chance for a child to do well in school and begin breaking the cycle of poverty.
It would be really difficult to take nine months’ worth of food around the world, to transport it, and store it correctly and deliver it to the woman in need. But, you can take a bottle of prenatal multivitamins in your backpack and deliver it to the most remote region in the world, and completely change a woman and a baby’s life forever. So if you had the chance, how could you not do that?
In Kenya, I saw a woman arrive at a prenatal multivitamin distribution for the first time with a clump of dirt tucked into her purse. She pulled it out and took small bites throughout the day, eating it like a snack. It was the only source of minerals available to her.
When we went to these same villages months later, after the women had been receiving prenatals, the results were remarkable. Women would stand up at our distributions and ‘testify’ to the amazing impact that the ‘Vitamin Angels’ (what they often call our prenatal multivitamins because of our name on the label) had on their pregnancies. Women whose first baby weighed three pounds, would now proudly hold up a six or seven-pound baby. Women who had no energy or were always fatigued early in their pregnancies would talk about working in their gardens all the way up to the day of delivery! And moms whose older children were always sick, would tell us how their new babies were always healthy and never sick!
The amazing thing is that nothing else in these women’s lives has changed. Their economic situation is still the same, their diet isn’t any different, they’re still living in the same place, but just adding a bottle of prenatal multivitamins to the equation has changed everything.
Finally, a few years ago the science started catching up with the stories we’ve heard for years. By comparing iron and folic acid supplements with prenatal multivitamins, researchers showed a 12% reduction in low birth weight babies and a 10% reduction in small for gestational age babies (key indicators for how healthy a baby will be or even if a baby will survive), and a 9% reduction in stillborn births with the women who took the prenatal multivitamins! Then the Lancet study showed that for anemic women who took a prenatal multivitamin (38% of pregnant women globally are anemic!), there was a 29% reduction in infant mortality at six months of age. With credible evidence, I knew it was time for a much bigger prenatal initiative. Knowing what was possible using the same locally sustainable model we’ve created to distribute vitamin A and deworming globally, we came up with the goal to ‘Eliminate newborn mortality around childbirth due to vitamin deficiency diseases by 2030'.
I feel like my life’s work has finally come full circle. Seeing healthy moms give birth to healthy babies, made possible with good nutrition and access to quality basic healthcare, is what I’ve always wanted. As a midwife, it was on a one-on-one basis; now it’s on a global scale.
I know we can do this. I know by 2030 we can be reaching fifty million women annually. I know we can make an incredible difference in the lives of millions and millions of babies and moms worldwide. And I honestly cannot think of doing anything with my life that would be more worthwhile.