According to a new report from the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, vitamin and mineral deficiencies are damaging more than one-third of the world's people and undermining economic develpoment.
Experts call micronutrient deficiencies the "hidden hunger." A lack of vitamin and mineral nutrients does not manifest itself in feelings of hunger in the stomach. Instead, the deficiencies damage the immune sytem, slow brain activity and diminish vitality.
Some of the most severe results of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, blindness, anemia and cretinism, have been recognized for decades. But the new report by UNICEF and The Micronutrient Initiative calls attention to the consequences of less extreme deficiencies. Iron deficiency, for example, is shown to impair intellectual development in young children, thereby lowering the intelligence and productivity levels of entire nations.
Kul Gautam, deputy director of UNICEF, says one-third of the world's population, especially children, suffers from vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
"We are failing them because we are allowing 20 million babies a year to be born mentally impaired due to iodine deficiency," he said. "We are failing them because we are allowing some 40 percent of children under five to have their immune systems compromised because of Vitamin A deficiency. We are failing them because we are allowing 50,000 women a year to die during childbirth because of iron deficiency anemia."
Ordinary childhood diseases such as measles can turn fatal because of vitamin and mineral deficiences, which also contribute to high rates of maternal and child deaths.
The tragedy, Mr. Gautam says, is that most of the deficiences can be solved easily and inexpensively by enriching food staples and distributing vitamin and mineral supplements.
"We can fortify staple foods such as flour, sugar, salt, margarine or cooking oil with essential vitamins and minerals for just a few cents per person per year. We can distribute vitamin and mineral supplements, especially to children," he said. "A vitamin A capsule effective for up to three months and costs as little as two cents. A three-month supply of iron tablets for pregnant women costs as little as 20 cents."
One of the great success stories in the campaign to call attention to the importance of enriching food staples took place 80 years ago when the Morton Salt Company began adding iodine to its table salt. The company advertised widely that its iodized salt would help reduce the chances of diminished intellectual capacity in babies. Morton, the largest producer of salt in the United States, works with UNICEF, the World Health Organization and regional networks around the world in support of salt iodization.
Walter Becky, President of Morton Salt, says it makes sense economically and morally. "Why do we do this? Obviously you might say it will help the salt industry and we will sell more salt," he said. "That is true but it is also about being a responsible corporate citizen. The members of the salt industry feel very good about that. We have had a chance to make a positive impact on people, especially young children."
Government policies and priorities may play as important a role as money in eliminating deficiencies. The new study shows, for example, that some of the poorest nations in the world, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Chad, Sierra Leone, have distributed vitamin A supplements to at least 70 percent of children under age five. Vitamin A deficiencies can cause blindness.