Inexpensive remedies can improve health of 2 billion people – UNICEF

21 January 2004

Lack of vitamins and minerals in the diet is damaging the health of 2 billion people – one third of the world’s population - and holding back the economic development of virtually every country in the southern hemisphere despite inexpensive means of prevention, according to a new United Nations report released today.

But fighting the problem will not succeed without a more ambitious, visionary, and systematic commitment to “deploy known solutions on the same scale as the known problems,” says the report from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Micronutrient Initiative, released at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The Initiative, a non-profit international centre based in Ottawa, Canada, is a UNICEF partner.

“When so much could be achieved for so many, and for so little, it would be a matter of global disgrace if vitamin and mineral deficiency were not brought under control in the years immediately ahead,” the report declares, noting that many preventive measures would cost only a few cents per person each year.

Whole populations can be protected by tested and inexpensive methods such as adding essential vitamins and minerals to regularly consumed foods like flour, salt, sugar, cooking oil and margarine at an annual cost of only a few cents per person, it says. Other measures include providing vulnerable groups, particularly children and women of childbearing age, with supplemental tablets, capsules and syrups, again costing only a few cents per person per year, and educating communities about foods that can increase the intake and absorption of needed vitamins and minerals.

“It’s no longer acceptable to simply identify symptoms of micronutrient deficiency in individuals and then treat them,” UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said. “We have to protect entire populations against the devastating consequences of vitamin and mineral deficiency, especially children.” Noting that the industrialized world has long achieved this, she added, “We know what needs doing – we just have to do it.”

Summarizing “damage assessment” studies in 80 nations, the report finds that lack of key vitamins and minerals impairs intellectual development, compromises immune systems, causes birth defects and consigns 2 billion people to lives below their physical and mental potential.

It notes that iron deficiency impairs mental development in young children, lowers national IQs and undermines adult productivity, with estimated losses of 2 per cent of the gross domestic product in the worst-affected countries. Vitamin A deficiency compromises the immune systems of some 40 per cent of children under five in the developing world, leading to the deaths of 1 million youngsters each year, while iodine deficiency in pregnancy leaves up to 20 million babies a year mentally impaired.

Severe iron deficiency anaemia kills some 50,000 women annually during childbirth. Folate deficiency causes some 200,000 severe birth defects each year and is associated with roughly 1 in 10 adult deaths from heart disease, according to the report.


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