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Nearly half of all child deaths are attributed to malnutrition – more than AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and COVID-19 combined. What many don’t realize, however, is that malnutrition often starts in the womb. In fact, every year, maternal malnutrition leads to an estimated 800,000 deaths among newborns. 

Ensuring Healthy Starts for Children

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life, from pregnancy to age two, are critical to brain development and set the nutritional foundation for future health. To help children get the best start in life, we need first to ensure that their mothers are well nourished. While pregnant, a woman needs up to 50 percent more micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – to support the changes in her body and the nutritional needs of her developing child.  

Yet two-thirds of women globally are deficient in at least one essential micronutrient, such as iron, zinc, or vitamin A. Iron-deficiency anemia is responsible for an estimated 22 percent of all maternal deaths. And if children do not gain sufficient nutrients in the womb, they can develop fetal malnutrition, suffer from stunting or delayed development, or worse. 

A Senegalese woman gives her baby a kiss on the cheek as she holds him up.
Good nutrition for mothers during pregnancy helps ensure a healthy start in life for their babies.

In wealthier countries like the United States, expectant mothers are given a complete regime of prenatal vitamins, in addition to the already nutrient-rich diet they are likely consuming. But in low- and middle-income countries, the standard practice is to give only two of these essential nutrients: iron and folic-acid. Although these two-nutrient supplements can improve pregnancy outcomes, they do not provide all the nutrition that women need.  

A Scalable Solution for Maternal Malnutrition

A Cambodian woman holds up a bottle of prenatal vitamins in one hand and a flyer about prenatal vitamins in the other.
Multiple micronutrient supplements provide 15 essential nutrients to support a healthy pregnancy.

Fortunately, there is a solution that is both cost-effective and readily available. By replacing iron-folic-acid supplements with a multiple micronutrient supplement, we can dramatically improve the health of mothers and, in turn, the health of their children. Packed with 15 essential nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, iodine, and zinc – along with iron and folic acid – these more complete prenatal supplements provide far better results for mother and child than iron and folic acid alone. 

Helen Keller Intl was instrumental in generating the evidence base for the new supplement’s efficacy through studies conducted in Indonesia and Niger. Today, we are on the forefront of translating this evidence into positive impact by working to scale up multiple micronutrient supplementation in countries across Africa and Asia.  

Our goal is to ensure that every pregnancy is supported by the foundation of comprehensive nutrition, every mother is empowered with the care she deserves, and every infant is afforded a robust start in life. However, accomplishing this requires much more than just swapping out a pill. It means building trust, establishing partnerships, and developing a deep understanding of the needs in each community – approaches that are fundamental to the way Helen Keller works. 

The Need to Act Now

Our first action is always to listen to women, community health workers, policy makers, national researchers, and other stakeholders to understand what bottlenecks may be preventing women from receiving the nutrient supplements they need. In Cambodia, for example, we have been working with the ministry of health to test delivery of multiple micronutrients against the standard iron and folic acid. Feedback from mothers and midwives has been enthusiastic. “Please produce more!” exclaims Son Phany, a midwife at the Chey Health Center in Kampong Thom Province. “So many women are asking for them.” 

A Cambodian woman and an American man sit next to each other facing the camera in a small office. The woman holds up a flyer promoting prenatal vitamins to address maternal malnutrition.
Midwife Son Phany (left), with Chief Program Officer Shawn Baker, notes her clients’ enthusiasm about the new multiple micronutrient supplements.

The evidence for supplementation is clear. And with a great many economic challenges affecting whether women are able to eat a nutritious diet, there is more urgency than ever to act to address maternal malnutrition. Helen Keller is committed to ensuring that every mother has access to the nutritional and medical support she needs to ensure that she and her child can thrive. By effectively scaling up multiple micronutrient supplementation for mothers, we hope to foster healthier pregnancies and better birth outcomes across low-income communities in Africa and Asia. 

This initiative has enormous promise, and we gratefully acknowledge the many close collaborations already established with communities, ministries of health, the Micronutrient Forum, Kirk Humanitarian, and Vitamin Angels – as well a generous partners like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Eleanor Crook Foundation, and our caring donors. It takes all of us to ensure that more mothers and children can live healthier lives. 

A Senegalese woman holds up a small baby while giving him a kiss on the cheek.

Help ensure all children have a healthy start in life.