Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, dizziness or drowsiness. IRIN spoke to a leading paediatrician at the Shams University of Cairo. She told the news agency that most cases of anaemia were occurring in children from poor districts or slum areas. People living in these areas often have a poor diet, because families struggle to afford meat and vegetables. In addition, high levels of pollution in some city areas are thought to weaken the immune system.
Egypt currently spends over 2 billion dollars a year on cheap bread for poor families, but currently this scheme does nothing to increase the levels of essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals such as iron) in children’s diets. The head of the National Nutrition Institute (NNI) told IRIN that the rate of iron deficiency anaemia recorded in children last year was 46 per cent. In 2011, this had risen to 51 per cent. He spoke of his country’s need to take action in order to counter the growing problem.
In conjunction with the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF), the NNI has begun implementing a programme to give schoolchildren biscuits with iron and folic acid. Egypt’s authorities are also now persuaded that bread flour should be fortified. In areas where this approach has already been tested, officials found no difference in the colour or taste of the bread. The cost of extending fortification in bread nationwide from next year is estimated at just over 10 million dollars. But the authorities seem determined to go ahead and will supply special mixing machines to bakeries. The government is also subsidizing folic acid for pregnant women, who are meant to take folic acid pills for the first three months of their pregnancy. This helps to reduce the risk of children being born with defects of the spinal cord, such as spina bifida.
The Egyptian authorities’ decision to fortify bread countrywide comes as more health experts focus on the issue of nutritional deficiencies in children and not just on low weight or stunted growth. There is now a much wider recognition that nutrition-deficient children have more diseases and lower educational standards. Shortages in food clearly cause illness and premature deaths in children, but now people are beginning to realise that poor diets also weaken them, slowly but surely.