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UN Study: 2 Billion People Suffer from Vitamin, Mineral Deficiencies Worldwide - 2004-04-21

A new U.N. study finds that as many as one third of the world's people suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The lack of essential nutrients impairs mental and physical health. Resources and technology exist to resolve the problem.

The nation by nation analysis effectively takes in 80 percent of the world's population and provides the most comprehensive picture ever of the global prevalence of vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

The report was produced jointly by UNICEF and a private research and advocacy group called the Micronutrient Initiative.

Micronutrient Initiative President Venkatesh Mannar says while industrialized nations addressed the issue decades ago, nutrient deficiencies remain acute in developing countries.

"The report found that nearly two billion people around the world continue to be affected with iron deficiency and this has a whole set of issues related to a loss of productivity, a loss of cognitive development in children and maternal mortality," he said.

The study found evidence that iron deficiency can lower intelligence test scores by five to seven points, and a lack of iodine in pregnancy causes as many as 20 million babies a year to be born with mental retardation.

Forty percent of children under five don't get enough Vitamin A, which compromises their immune system and leads to sickness and death.

Venkatesh Mannar says industrialized countries began iodizing salt 50 years ago, a move that developing nations began in earnest over the last decade, with considerable success.

"Seventy percent of the world's salt is iodized. And thanks to that millions of children are protected from the effects on their mental development and physical development," he said. "Similarly 10 years ago children under five were extremely vitamin A deficient and now large parts of the world are getting vitamin A supplements and children in those countries are given those supplements twice a year."

But in other countries things are getting worse. India has the largest number of iodine-deficient people, 50 percent of the country is not receiving the additive.

Mr. Mannar says Micronutrient Initiative is taking steps to address the hardest to reach citizens.

"We are working with governments to target those interventions. [They are] aimed at the weakest segments of the population to get the nutrients to them through health services,? Mr. Mannar said. ?In some cases [we are working] to fortify foods targeted to those populations through public feeding programs. We try to get the nutrients into those foods as well so that young children living in those poor communities can get those fortified complementary foods." The new dietary report also calls on the food industry to develop, market and distribute low-cost fortified food products and supplements, and for governments and civic groups to support nutrition education and health programs.

Venkatesh Mannar says the resources and technology are available to bring the problem under control.

"The resources we are talking about are not very great. And the cost of these interventions is on the order of a few cents per person per year," Mr. Mannar said.

He says vitamin and mineral deficiency has been around for much too long, and what is needed now is "the will, the effort and the action to fix it."