07/17/2014 05:32 EDT | Updated 09/16/2014 05:59 EDT

Seeing Red In the Best Way Possible

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The colour red is something many Americans associate with Canada. The flag; a red-and-white hockey jersey; the sign at Tim Horton's. My association is a bit different. I think of red too -- tiny, life-saving, life-changing red from Canada. I think of millions of little red capsules of Vitamin A and the leadership Canada has shown in putting these capsules and other resources to work alleviating malnutrition globally.

Vitamin A deficiency is a major contributor to child deaths, and the leading cause of blindness in children globally. Its worst effects can be largely prevented through one dose every six months of Vitamin A supplements. These capsules -- red for children between one and five years old and blue for children six months to one year -- are one of the greatest life-saving tools we have. While only 16 per cent of children were receiving the necessary two annual doses in 1999, by 2007 this figure had more than quadrupled to 72 per cent. In some countries, 100 per cent coverage has been reached.

This achievement -- one of the biggest in global nutrition to date -- is in large part thanks to Canada.

As Helen Keller International's Vice President and Regional Director in Africa, I saw this leadership firsthand. One of my proudest moments was in June 1999 in Niger. At the time, Niger had the highest rate of child deaths in the world. The country got Vitamin A supplements out to children once per year, with very high coverage but the challenge was getting out the second dose. Niger was the first country in Africa to organize a second national campaign for Vitamin A capsules -- with Canada's support and capsules provided by the Micro-nutrient Initiative.

This global success in Vitamin A is indicative of a wider revolution in how we approach nutrition. Before I joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last year, I spent more than 30 years working on nutrition, much of it in sub-Saharan Africa.

Since those days, we have gone from a purely reactive approach to nutrition, focused on attempting to save lives once children were already severely malnourished, to a focus on prevention -- reaching women and children in the critical 1,000 day window of a mother's pregnancy until her child's second birthday with effective, affordable interventions such as breastfeeding, vitamin and mineral supplements and fortified foods.

Amidst these changes, there has been one constant: Canadian leadership. Canada was leading the way when I was standing on the banks of the Niger River in 1999, and it is still doing that today as the lead global nutrition donor for several years in a row.

Recognizing the 1,000-day period as a critical opportunity to get children the nutrition needed for healthy growth and development, Canada has led the way on integrating nutrition into the broader maternal and child health agenda. Nutrition was a pillar of Canada's landmark Muskoka Initiative of 2010 and will be a key component of the recently announced CAD 3.5 billion by Prime Minister Harper last month to maternal, newborn child health from 2015-20.

Now, governments and organizations around the world are following Canada's lead. The global Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement has grown to 53 countries and last June, the Foundation joined stakeholders including 26 governments and 27 business and science organizations, to commit scaling up proven nutrition interventions at the Nutrition for Growth meeting in London.

I'm excited to see what lies ahead as we continue our partnerships with Canada. Canada just announced a CAD 20 million investment in the second phase of Alive & Thrive, a Foundation-supported initiative to improve infant and young child feeding, including breastfeeding. Over 800,000 children's lives are lost every year because of poor breastfeeding practices, but Alive & Thrive demonstrated that support for improved practices can work. In just a few years of Alive & Thrive's implementation, exclusive breastfeeding rates for children in their first 6 months tripled in program areas in Vietnam, increasing from 19 to 63 percent, with gains also in Bangladesh and Ethiopia, the other two Alive & Thrive focus countries.

We also partner with Canada in supporting the Micronutrient Forum, which works to alleviate micronutrient deficiencies. The Forum secretariat is hosted by the Micronutrient Initiative, with funding from the Foundation, Canada and other partners. Last month in Addis Ababa, the Forum brought together more than 1,000 people from across sectors to assess challenges and opportunities, under the theme of "Bridging discovery and delivery."

When it comes to nutrition, Canada indeed has the world seeing red--quite literally as the little red capsules has helped millions of children keep their sight. But Canada's leadership on nutrition is far bigger than a capsule. The Canadian commitment to nutrition is reflected in the organizations, people, technology, partnerships and resources that we see every day, just as we have for years. We look forward to seeing what we can all do next, together.