Philanthropist Bill Gates today joined the head of the main United Nations children's agency to launch the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) - a new initiative aimed at helping eliminate the vitamin and mineral deficiencies that threaten more than 2 billion people.
Hailing the new venture, Carol Bellamy, the Executive Director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), stressed that good nutrition - both before and after birth - is essential to helping children's bodies and brains develop properly. Despite some successes in this area, micronutrient deficiencies are still common in populations in developing countries, she told a joint press conference at UN Headquarters in New York, where a special session of the General Assembly on children is currently under way.
Adding vitamins and minerals to staple foods like flour and milk has been a common practice in the industrialized world for decades. The new initiative "will bring the benefits that the industrialized world has had an opportunity to enjoy for some time much sooner to those who are not able to enjoy those at this point," she added.
The alliance was also welcomed by Zambian President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa and the President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who took part in the launch event. President Mwanawasa said the initiative would make a positive contribution in his country. "Inadequate iodine in food consumed by Zambians in some parts of the country continues to have devastating effects on pregnant women and young children," he said.
According to GAIN partners, funds available for the first year will be between $20 and $25 million, with more than $70 million committed over five years, including $50 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
"We see this initiative as extremely important on its own, and also the example of the kind of public-private kind of partnership that can bring together the skills and resources to address crying needs for the world's children," said Mr. Gates, the Foundation's co-founder.
Illustrating the impact of micronutrients, Mr. Gates pointed out that in the case of measles, if a child was getting sufficient Vitamin A, mortality was reduce by over 30 per cent. "There's really a virtuous cycle that we all believe in getting going here and that is: as children are more healthy, they're able to learn more… women choose to have fewer children, economic opportunities go up," he said.
Mr. Gates cited the success of iodized salt, which had helped young people across the developing world, but added that in the areas of iron, Vitamin A and folic acid, "we're falling short for literally billions of children."
Addressing the issue of corporate participation, John Pepper, Chairman of the Board of Procter and Gamble, stressed the need for the private sector to support governments in the area of nutrition. "It's a question of will, it's a question of focus, and it's a question of organization," he said. "We have technologies that we know now can bring iron, iodine, Vitamin A and others at an extremely low cost into a variety of foods which people have every day."