Gestational vitamin A deficiency: a novel cause of sensorineural hearing loss in the developing world?
Hearing loss is a substantial public health problem with profound social and economic consequences in the developing world. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are 360 million people living with disabling hearing loss globally, and 80% of these individuals are from low- and middle-income countries. The epidemiology of hearing impairment remains poorly defined in most impoverished societies. Middle ear infections in childhood are a key determinant; however, congenital anomalies may also comprise an important etiology and may arise from gestational malnutrition. While evidence exists that preventable vitamin A deficiency exacerbates the severity of ear infections and, consequently, hearing loss, antenatal vitamin A deficiency during sensitive periods of fetal development may represent an etiologically distinct and virtually unexplored causal pathway. Evidence from multiple animal systems clearly shows that fetal inner ear development requires adequate vitamin A nutriture to proceed normally. Inner ear malformations occur in experimentally imposed maternal vitamin A deficiency in multiple species in a dose-response manner. These anomalies are likely due to the loss of retinoic acid-dependent regulation of both hindbrain development and otic morphogenic processes. Based on in vivo evidence in experimental animals, we hypothesize that preventable gestational vitamin A deficiency, especially during early stages of fetal development, may predispose offspring to inner ear malformations and sensorineural hearing loss. As vitamin A deficiency affects an estimated 20 million pregnant women globally, we hypothesize that, in undernourished settings, routine provision of supplemental vitamin A at the recommended allowance throughout pregnancy may promote normal inner ear development and reduce risk of an as yet unknown fraction of sensorineural hearing loss. If our hypothesis proves correct, gestational vitamin A deficiency would represent a potentially preventable etiology of sensorineural hearing loss of substantial public health significance.
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