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Vitamin-Fortified Food Initiative for Children in Developing Countries - 2002-05-10

The private and public sectors have come together at the United Nations this week to launch a major initiative to provide children in developing countries with vitamin-fortified food. The announcement was made during a three-day U.N. session devoted to children's issues.

The new program, called "Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition," aims at saving at least two-billion children around the world from the debilitating, even fatal, effects of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The lack of these so-called micro-nutrients in the diets of women and children can cause a wide range of health problems, from birth defects to growth problems, mental retardation and blindness.

Among the donors to the Global Alliance for Nutrition is Bill Gates, the head of software company Microsoft. Through his private foundation, Mr. Gates is giving $50 million over five years. He said the return in terms of saved lives can be very dramatic. "We're falling short for literally billions of children," he said. "And these micro-nutrients make a huge difference. Take something like measles, if you have proper vitamin-A support, it reduces the mortality there by over 30 percent, which means that alone is saving hundreds-of-thousands of lives."

Also involved in the public-private partnership on nutrition is the chairman of U.S. consumer products giant Proctor and Gamble, John Pepper. Mr. Pepper said the technology exists today to fortify foods cheaply, and in a palatable way. In other words, the natural taste of foods is not altered significantly. "The only question in how well we do in five or 10 years from now in making a major difference in this area is a question of will. It is a question of focus, and it is a question of organization," he said. "We have technologies that we know now can bring iron, iodine and vitamin-A and others at very low cost into a variety of foods that people have every day."

Proctor and Gamble fortifies its own food products. It hopes to sell them to developing countries. That is where the profit motive comes in. But Mr. Pepper says the technology can be adapted locally, so countries can use it for their own unique diets.

Fortified foods are not new. In fact, developed countries have long reaped their health benefits through such products as iodized salt and milk enriched with vitamins A and D.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has expressed enthusiasm for the project. Mr. Annan has long espoused harnessing the private sector for public programs, using, as he would often say, all the talent society has to offer to lift the world's people out of poverty and hopelessness.

UNICEF, the U.N. Children's Fund, a major organizer of this week's special session on children, calls the effort an investment in the future.