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Feb 20

Addressing Micronutrient Deficiency

For infants and children across the globe, a lack of proper vitamins and minerals can have severe consequences. Micronutrient deficiency is a form of malnutrition, caused by an insufficient intake of vitamins and minerals, also known as micronutrients. Despite the fact that relatively small doses of micronutrients are required, their absence may have deadly consequences. Vitamin and mineral deficiency may result in impaired growth and cognitive development, cretinism, and blindness. In pregnant women, micronutrient deficiency can result in birth defects.

Photo Credit: Mary Crimmins

In the developing world, almost 20% of the population have iodine deficiency, about 25% of children have sub-clinical vitamin A deficiency, and 40-60%  are anemic. In numbers, this means that about 2 billion people on the planet are suffering from anemia. With such a large population suffering from micronutrient deficiency, different solutions have been developed to help individuals regain the nutrients their bodies require.

One of the simplest solutions, often employed in industrialized nations is found in supplementary pills. However, while these pills may be a quick fix, they aren’t always easy to distribute. They can be expensive, and in order to be effective, the vitamin deficient population needs the assessment and prescriptions from medical professionals at the appropriate time, which is not always possible for isolated communities with limited medical help. A further problem with supplementary pills is that they don’t address the needs of the most vulnerable population – infants and children. Infants and young children don’t have the ability to simply swallow a pill, assuming that families can even afford that treatment. How then are young children supposed to gain the vitamins that their bodies need?

For Dr. Stanley Zlotkin, the answer lies with micronutrient powders, a product the Toronto-based physician began distributing in 2001. The micronutrient powders, marketed under the name Sprinkles, are tasteless and, due to their powdered form, can be mixed into any food. It’s an elegant solution, making it possible for children to gain the nutrients they lack for a few dollars a year. In addition, the simplicity of the product makes it an attractive solution for parents, as they can easily integrate the powders into a child’s traditional diet. The powders are currently being used in different countries such as Afghanistan and the Dominican Republic, and formulations for adults and adolescents are often employed in disaster regions and refugee camps. Next year, the World Food Program reports that they would like to distribute the micronutrient powders to 1.3 million children.

In addition to supplying with micronutrient powders, some organizations emphasize changing the diet of families itself, by using special food items to increase the nutrient intake.

In Mozambique, a study has found that the sweet potato has the potential to increase a family’s consumption of vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency can have serious consequences; each year, up to half a million children go blind due to an insufficient amount of vitamin A, within months, two-thirds of those children will die. However, about a gram of vitamin A each day can prevent such an outcome. For families in Mozambique, employing the sweet potato, one of the most important cash crops and food staples in the country, may be able to supply the needed amounts of vitamin A.

The sweet potato is an excellent source of carbohydrates, fiber, and many vitamins and minerals- including beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. While the starchy white and yellow potatoes are often consumed by families in rural regions, adding the sweet potato to this diet could dramatically reduce the number of people suffering from vitamin deficiency. A new program has begun to take advantage of the benefits of the sweet potato, working to increase awareness of its healthy aspects and provide local farmers with more innovate ways of growing the product. Thanks these efforts, more families are growing and using sweet potatoes on their farms, with 65% of impacted households adopting the use of the sweet potato. On average, families that started using the sweet potato were able to double vitamin A intake for women and children.

These two interventions have the potential to increase children’s access to vital micronutrients, but may only be successful in certain settings. Next week, we’ll look at other ways of addressing micronutrient deficiency and malnutrition, as well as evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of these programs.

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