NEW YORK, 24 March 2004 -- As many as a third of the world's people do not meet their physical and intellectual potential because of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, according to a report released in New York today by UNICEF and The Micronutrient Initiative.
The report is accompanied by individual Damage Assessment Reports that present the most comprehensive picture to date of the toll being taken by vitamin and mineral deficiency in 80 developing countries.
"Everyone who cares about the future of children and the development of nations should heed this report," said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. "The overwhelming scope of the problem makes it clear that we must reach out to whole populations and protect them from the devastating consequences of vitamin and mineral deficiency."
Unless action against vitamin and mineral deficiencies moves onto a new level, the developing world's children will remain at risk of never reaching their full potential, the report concludes. And the UN will not achieve its goals of eradicating extreme poverty, improving maternal health and reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2015.
The severe effects of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, such as anaemia, cretinism and blindness, have long been known. The report sheds new light on other problems caused by less extreme deficiencies. For example:
- Iron deficiency impairs intellectual development in young children and is lowering national IQs.
- Vitamin A deficiency compromises the immune systems of approximately 40% of children under five in the developing world, leading to the deaths of 1 million youngsters each year.
- Iodine deficiency in pregnancy is causing as many as 20 million babies a year to be born mentally impaired.
Methods that have worked in industrialised nations are now so inexpensive and available that they could control vitamin and mineral deficiencies worldwide, Bellamy said.
Chief among them are food fortification, adding essential vitamins and minerals to regularly consumed foods; and supplementation, reaching out to children and women of childbearing age with vitamin and mineral supplements in the form of low-cost tables, capsules and syrups. Also essential are public education and controlling diseases like malaria, measles, diarrhoea, and parasitic infections that inhibit the absorption and utilization of essential vitamins and minerals.
These methods have resulted in significant gains during the past decade. A sustained effort to add iodine to salt consumed by two-thirds of the world's households has protected approximately 70 million newborns a year, in some degree, against mental impairment. And more than 40 developing countries are now reaching two-thirds or more of their young children with at least one high-dose vitamin A capsule every year. The effort to date is estimated to be saving the lives of more than 300,000 young children a year and over time preventing the irreversible blindness of hundreds of thousands more.
The report calls for the food industry to develop, market and distribute low-cost fortified food products and supplements and for governments to create a supportive legislative environment and standards enabling environments for the control of vitamin and mineral deficiency through education and legislation.
"All children have the right to a good start in life," said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Kul Gautam, who launched the report in New York during the 31st session of the annual meeting of the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition. "With nearly a third of the planet affected in some way by a problem for which a clear solution exists, anything less than rapid progress is unconscionable."