Vitamin A is the generic term for a variety of fat-soluble substances including retinol, retinyl palmitate and the provitamin A carotenoids such as all-trans--carotene. Vitamin A is commonly known as the anti-infective vitamin and has an essential role in vision and cellular differentiation, the latter providing a unique core mechanism helping to explain the influence of vitamin A on epithelial barriers. Alterations in the epithelial lining of vital organs occur early in deficiency, suggesting a potentially important role for the barrier function. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is most commonly recognized in the eye.
The conjunctival-impression cytology test detects the presence of larger irregular keratinized cells and the absence of mucous-secreting goblet cells, indicative of VAD. The method is simple, quick and sensitive in populations where VAD is present. In the respiratory tract, observational studies all show an association with VAD, although vitamin A supplementation studies appear to have little effect on respiratory disease. Organ-specific targeting may improve success rates. The dual-sugar intestinal-permeability test allows the effect of vitamin A supplementation to be monitored on the gastrointestinal tract.
Two vitamin A supplementation studies were carried out recently in Orissa State, India. Healthy infants of weaning age were administered orally eight weekly doses of 5·0 mg retinol equivalents and hospitalized infants received one large oral dose 60 mg retinol equivalents in the form of retinyl palmitate. Improvements in gut integrity and haematological status were observed in both studies. In summary, the response of the eye to vitamin A supplementation is well established; the present review highlights some of the more recent observations examining the effects of vitamin A.