Little pills powering global relief

JERRY GERLING/Advocate staff
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OLDS — Hundreds of thousands of children owe their lives to the products pouring off assembly lines at this town’s Banner Pharmacaps plant.

The nondescript building in an Olds industrial park annually turns out 250 million to 300 million doses of vitamin A for Canada’s Micronutrient Initiative, an Ottawa-based non-profit organization committed to improving the health of children in more than 70 developing countries.

On Thursday, Micronutrient Initiative celebrated the five billionth vitamin A capsule manufactured for its program since 1997 with representatives from Banner and Windsor, Ont.-based Accucaps Industries Limited, the two companies contracted to provide the doses that are distributed through UNICEF.

Banner’s Dr. Aqeel Fatmi called the milestone a “fantastic achievement” and an important part of the campaign to fight the so-called hidden hunger of vitamin and mineral deficiencies in the world’s most vulnerable populations, children in developing countries.

Growing up in India, Fatmi said he saw how micronutrient deficiencies ravaged children, robbing them of their eyesight.

“I am humbled by the truth a single capsule can change a child’s life,” said Fatmi, global vice-president of research and development and operations.

It is estimated that more than two million children’s lives have been saved by the billions of liquid doses provided to them twice yearly through the vitamin A program.

Banner has produced about 1.5 billion of the doses, which cost only two cents a capsule but reduce the mortality rate for children under five by 23 per cent.

In 2007, the initiative provided 530 million doses for more than 230 million children.

That same year, global child mortality for children under five fell below 10 million deaths for the first time in history, to 9.7 million fatalities. The number of young children dying each year has since dropped further to 9.2 million deaths.

The vitamin deficiency is common in the developing world, where food can be scarce and the types of available food limited.

“It’s a combination of the quality of the food and the quantity of the food,” said Venkatesh Mannar, president of the Micronutrient Initiative.

Providing vitamin A is a cost-effective way to fight deadly infections, such as measles. If a child gets measles, they face a less severe bout; if they get pneumonia, they have a better chance of fighting it, said Alison Greig, the Initiative’s manager of child survival.

The numbers of doses needed each year are compiled by working with the health officials in each country and by using complex forecasting methods. They are transported from Canada to UNICEF’s main warehouse in Copenhagen and then distributed through the charity’s offices in each country.

“We know that global coverage is about 70 per cent,” said Greig.

While impressive, it leaves 30 per cent of children unable to get the vitamin doses.

“There’s still lots of work to be done.”

Banner is based in High Point, N.C., and specializes in the research, development, manufacturing and distribution of soft-gelatin pharmaceutical, over-the-counter, and nutritional consumer products. The company’s Olds plant produces about 1.2 billion capsules per year and employs 100 people.

Among its achievements was the development of a gelatin capsule that could withstand intense heat and humidity and poor storage conditions. The capsules, designed so the end can be clipped and the liquid inside emptied into the child’s mouth, can last up to two years without losing potency.

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