A renewed and increased focus on nourishing populations is urgently needed to combat the daunting problem of hidden hunger. New data shows the problem is even bigger than previously thought: one in two children and two in three women worldwide are affected by preventable micronutrient deficiencies.
People living in low- and middle-income countries bear most of the burden. Alarmingly, as high as nine in 10 women in several countries in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are affected by at least one deficiency.
The research published in the Lancet Global Health reveals the decades-old estimate that two billion people worldwide were affected by micronutrient malnutrition is probably a major underestimate.
Among preschool children globally, the new data reveals 56 percent are deficient in either iron, zinc, vitamin A, or a combination of the three. Even more, 69 percent of non-pregnant women globally (15 – 49 years old) are deficient in either iron, zinc, folate, or a combination of the three. The publication casts light on the existence of large numbers of individuals suffering simultaneously from more than one micronutrient deficiency.
Deficiencies in essential micronutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin A compromise immune systems, hinder child growth and development, and limit human potential. Poor folate status can lead to anemia and during pregnancy can cause major birth defects.
Understanding the scope of the micronutrient malnutrition problem and its distribution across populations and geographies is critical to determining the safe and effective implementation of public health nutrition interventions.
Solutions with Impact
What is reassuring is evidence-based solutions like biofortification can help prevent and mitigate the deleterious impacts of inequitable global access to micronutrient-dense foods when scaled up. Yet, no single solution alone can address such a complex and wide-spread challenge, one that requires sustainable improvements to food systems. Multiple integrated actions including improving access to a diverse diet, fortifying staple foods and condiments, and targeting supplementation programs are essential.
In 2021, over 64 million people across Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean benefitted from improved intake of iron, zinc, and/or vitamin A through biofortification. Among them, over six million people were eating more than one biofortified crop as many countries have adopted a ‘food basket’ approach to the biofortification of staples. In most cases, where two crops were consumed, these traditional but biofortified diets supplied two different priority nutrients, meaning individuals were eating more iron and zinc, or more vitamin A and iron, for example.
The research, “Micronutrient deficiencies among preschool-aged children and women of reproductive age worldwide“, is the result of a collaboration between the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, the Micronutrient Forum, and USAID Advancing Nutrition. This analysis was the first ever global estimate of micronutrient deficiencies in women and children that assessed multiple markers of micronutrient status within the same individuals.
The data was collected between 2003 – 2019 from nationally representative surveys of 24 countries across seven regions. Thus, significant gaps in our understanding of the true prevalence of deficiencies still exist, particularly given the compounding crises of climate, COVID-19, and conflict, which have greatly exacerbated food and nutrition insecurity in recent years. The study authors call for more and better data on micronutrient status across all strata to be able to better qualify the total global burden, and better target solutions.
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