Hidden Hunger: Every second child globally deficient in micronutrients, finds report

56% preschool aged children, 69% non-pregnant women of reproductive age lack in iron, zinc & vit A

By Taran Deol
Published: Thursday 13 October 2022
At least one of iron, zince or vitamin A was globally deficient in 372 million preschool-aged children. Photo: iStock
At least one of iron, zince or vitamin A was globally deficient in 372 million preschool-aged children. Photo: iStock At least one of iron, zince or vitamin A was globally deficient in 372 million preschool-aged children. Photo: iStock

Micronutrient deficiencies, also colloquially called hidden hunger, could be a much bigger issue globally than previously thought. Every other child of preschool age and two out of three women of reproductive age across the world are plagued by hidden hunger, a new study published in The Lancet has claimed. 

Deficiencies of micronutrients like vitamins and minerals can result in a compromised immune system, hinder a child’s growth and development and affect human potential. However, our understanding of the global prevalence of micronutrient deficiencies is decades old and primarily based on anaemia prevalence.

Read more: Child malnutrition in India: A systemic failure

The Lancet study assessed 24 data sets — of which 18 provided data on both non-pregnant women of reproductive age and preschool-aged children and four focused on just the latter — from 22 countries between 2003 and 2019. It analysed three key micronutrients; iron, zinc, and vitamin A. 

At least one of the three micronutrients was globally deficient in 372 million preschool-aged children — 56 per cent — and 1.2 billion non-pregnant women of reproductive age — 69 per cent. 

Geographically, south Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific housed three-quarters of these children, while 57 per cent of these women were from east Asia and the Pacific or south Asia. “However, estimates are uncertain due to the scarcity of population-based micronutrient deficiency data,” the study noted.

Non-profit Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) conducted the study under United States’ independent agency USAID Advancing Nutrition project. A team of global micronutrient experts supported it.

Low and low-middle-income countries have a prevalence of deficiencies, propelled by monotonous diets lacking a diversity of nutrient-rich foods and a high reliance on a large share of calories from rice, wheat, maize or similar staple foods.

Surprisingly, there was a high prevalence of micronutrient deficiencies even in high-income countries. This may be due to “diets high in processed but micronutrient poor foods, rather than reliance on a single staple as in many lower-income countries,” the report noted. 

Read more: Fewer kids under 3 breastfed within an hour of birth, finds NFHS-5

Health impacts of these deficiencies range from increased susceptibility to infections, congenital disabilities, blindness, reduced growth, cognitive impairment, decreased school performance and work productivity and even death.

“Diets that don’t provide the right levels of vitamins and minerals can compromise your immune system, impair your cognition and school performance, decrease your work productivity and may contribute to risks of non-communicable diseases such as heart problems,” Lynnette Neufeld was quoted by a GAIN press release October 11, 2022.

Neufeld is the director of Food and Nutrition Division at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. 

Neufeld said: 

This is a widespread problem, impacting individuals, families and communities everywhere in the world, although particularly in lower-income countries.

Solutions are available to this decades-old problem. The key is to ensure a robust food supply, particularly rich in micronutrients such as animal-source foods, dark green leafy vegetables and beans, lentils or peas. 

But these solutions have been made difficult to implement because of a host of reasons. Long-term impacts of climate change, the lasting damage to supply chains caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine and the imminent economic downturn as some of them are some of them, said Saskia Osendarp, executive director of global platform Micronutrient Forum. 

Read more: Acute malnutrition worsened among children: NFHS-5

“Food fortification can help make up the difference when healthy diets are unaffordable or accessible. Health programmes can provide supplements to those with extra needs, such as pregnant women and malnourished children,” Osendarp added, according to the statement. 

Other means to address these gaps include prioritising productivity and diversity of a variety of nutritious crops and livestock, developing crops that are more nutritious and drought-resilient (“biofortification”), reducing trade and transportation costs and improving markets, the study noted.

Like any poor health indicator for children, this, too, will have ramifications for the future.

“Our failure to nourish the youngest will undermine public health and haunt us socially, economically, environmentally and politically down the generations. All corners of society, led by governments, need to tackle the burden of hidden hunger, via all the channels available,” GAIN’s Executive Director Lawrence Haddad said. 

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