Introduction

Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide, especially among infants, children and women in developing countries. An estimated 253 million children are at risk of immunodeficiency due to Vitamin A deficiency (World Health Organization, 1995), and millions of pregnant and lac-tating women are also at high risk in developing countries. Among the micronu-trients, the role of vitamin A in immune function has probably been the most extensively characterized, and studies have shown a multifaceted role of vitamin A in many aspects of immunity. Vitamin A plays a role in the maintenance of mucosal surfaces, in the generation of antibody responses, in haematopoiesis and in the function of T and B lymphocytes, natural killer (NK) cells and neutrophils (for reviews, see Semba, 1994, 1998). The influence of vitamin A on different aspects of immune function is attributed to the action of vitamin A and related metabolites as modulators of gene transcription. The purpose of this chapter is to summarize the role that vitamin A plays in immune function and resistance to infectious diseases. In addition to compromising the immune system, vitamin A deficiency causes night-blindness, xerophthalmia, retardation of growth, impaired reproductive capacity and anaemia. Recently, this array of adverse health problems was described in a comprehensive manner and has been aptly termed the 'vitamin A deficiency disorders' (McLaren and Frigg, 2001).

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