Oct 8 2004
A report released yesterday says that Africa is fighting back against vitamin and mineral deficiencies, saving millions of women and children from death and debilitation through simple, cost effective strategies such as fortifying staple foods. But millions of children can still be helped if current strategies and partnerships are extended to reach every country and every child.
Several countries in sub-Saharan Africa have made tremendous progress in ensuring that women and children have access to essential vitamins and minerals – easing the suffering of “hidden hunger” which still leaves millions on the brink of survival. Accordingly, micronutrient malnutrition is recognized as one of the most serious obstacles to human development and survival by the West African Health Organization (WAHO) and is at the forefront of WAHO's agenda, their commitment and support being critical to those nations which are grappling with competing priorities and scarce resources to address vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
According to the report by UNICEF, the WHO, the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), the Micronutrient Initiative (MI), and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), over two-thirds of the populations in sub-Saharan Africa have access to iodized salt and millions of children have been reached with vitamin A supplements. Countries like Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Nigeria have made progress under difficult circumstances but competing priorities and insufficient capacity are holding back progress in other countries.
Yet ending vitamin and mineral deficiency could be a major catalyst for Africa to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, improving maternal health, and reducing child deaths by two-thirds by 2015.
“By controlling these deficiencies in children, African nations have a great opportunity to advance the development of the entire continent in a relatively short time,” says Kul Gautam, UNICEF’s Deputy Executive Director. “We have the right strategies – food fortification, supplementation and basic nutritional education – and the right partnerships to implement them. The challenge is simply our will to reach out to every child.”
Malnutrition is still a major underlying cause of child mortality in Africa, where one in five children will never live to see their fifth birthday. And older children struggle to thrive when their bodies and minds are weakened by lack of these tiny but vital essentials, holding back productivity and national economic development.
“Micronutrient deficiency also has many invisible economic effects that are widely underestimated,” said Jay Naidoo, Chairperson of the Development Bank of Southern Africa, “because they sap the energy of working-age people and hurt the learning ability of children, causing billions of dollars in lost productivity in developing countries that can least afford it.”
“Resources and technologies to bring vitamin and mineral deficiency under control do exist,” said Venkatesh Mannar, President of the Micronutrient Initiative. “What we need is the will and the action to mobilize resources and deploy technologies to fix this problem. The return on our investment will be huge.”
Reaching out to particularly vulnerable population groups – young children and women -fortifying staple foods with essential vitamins and minerals and providing supplements to those at highest risk of vitamin and mineral deficiency are some of the necessary actions highlighted by the report.
While it has been known for years that the lack of key vitamins and minerals inflicts anaemia, cretinism and blindness, attention in the last decade has shifted to the economic and social impact on populations. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies impair intellectual development, compromise immune systems, provoke birth defects and consign millions to living below their full physical and mental potential. It is estimated that vitamin and mineral deficiencies are costing sub-Saharan economies more than $2.3 billion in lost productivity.