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Tackling nutritional deficiencies in Kyrgyzstan

In Kyrgyzstan, it would be rare to find children with distended bellies or emaciated limbs. So many would assume malnutrition is not a problem in this poor nation. However, in 2006 the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) discovered alarming signs that children were suffering from a chronic deficiency in micronutrients. Healthy eating not only requires the intake of enough food, but also that it contains the right vitamins and minerals, or micronutrients. Without elements such as iron, iodine, Vitamin A, folic acid and zinc, children are prone to illnesses and the long-term effects can be devastating.

According to health experts in Kyrgyzstan, widespread deficiencies in micronutrients present the greatest threat to the physical and mental wellbeing of young children in the country today. It is believed that nationally, almost 40 per cent of women lack some or all of the essential micronutrients in their diet and deficiencies affect over half of the country’s children. If children under two are regularly without essential vitamins and minerals, they are prone to hundreds of ailments and can eventually develop malignant tumours and other long-term health defects. In the 2006 UNICEF survey, the problem of underdeveloped children was most acute in the Talas province. Here many under fives were exhibiting signs of slower than average growth and two-thirds of babies between 6 and 24 months were deficient in iron, with a similar number lacking in folic acid.

To address the problem, UNICEF, working in conjunction with Kyrgyzstan’s Health Ministry and the Swiss Red Cross, and with financial support from the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC), has introduced a micronutrient powder which is given free to infants between 6 and 24 months. The powder, known as ‘Gulazyk’ in Kyrgyz or ‘Sprinkles’ in English, contains iron, folic acid, zinc and vitamins A and C. It has been given out by medical centres in Talas since June last year and early results are encouraging. Initial findings suggest distribution of the powder may have already cut the rate of anaemia through iron deficiency by 20 percent.

Unlike in the West, most households are not able to access or afford fortified foods and few shops sell products such as fortified cereals. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and independence, diets have also suffered from the general poverty of many families. Instead of expensive meat and dairy products, households have come to rely on less expensive foods like bread and tea, which inhibit the body’s uptake of iron. The Swiss Red Cross will now be funding the introduction of the powder into Naryn, one of the poorest provinces in Kyrgyzstan. And with a 1.3 billion donation from the George Soros foundation, it is hoped to extend the programme to three more of the country’s seven provinces. In Jalalabad and Osh, the two remaining provinces, UNICEF and the Health Ministry will distribute the powder to any hospitalized children.

However, with one sachet of the powder at less than 2.5 US cents, a nationwide programme would cost only 6 million dollars. Considering Kyrgyzstan is estimated to spend at least 28 million dollars on health problems due to iron and iodine deficiencies, extension of the programme would easily be the most cost-effective way to ensure better health among the next generation.

Laurinda Luffman signature