A lack of zinc, iron and Vitamin A, along with other vitamins and minerals (micronutrients), is estimated to account for around 7% of the world’s disease burden each year. And it’s also becoming clear that even mild to moderate deficiencies in essential micronutrients lead to impaired physical and cognitive abilities. Experts now believe that such impairment affects learning in children and decreases work productivity in adults.
A new study conducted by scientists from various institutions, government agencies, UN bodies and non-governmental organisations, aims to show where children are most at risk from micronutrient deficiencies. They have devised a ‘Hidden Hunger Index’ which gives countries an average score based on rates of stunting (a proxy for zinc deficiency), iron-deficiency anaemia and vitamin A deficiency in preschool children.
The results of the study show that of the top 20 countries severely affected by multiple micronutrient deficiencies, 18 are in Africa (with India and Afghanistan also in the list). Niger heads the list of the worst countries for hidden hunger in young children, with 47% stunted, 42% suffering anaemia and 67% estimated to have a Vitamin A deficiency. In its population as a whole, Niger suffers from a high burden of disease.
In most of the other countries with the highest hidden hunger scores, more than two-fifths of preschool children were estimated to be stunted/zinc deficient, with at least 30% suffering from anaemia (due to iron deficiency) and 50% lacking in vitamin A. In many of these countries, a high hidden hunger score correlates with a low Human Development Index (HDI) score, which is based on the basic development parameters of health, education and standard of living.
Speaking to the news agency Reuters, one of the co-authors of the hidden hunger study said that he found the link between the hidden hunger and HDI scores “striking” and that the finding highlights the importance of addressing nutrition as a way to advancing development. He also explained that undernourishment may be less important to development than the lack of essential micronutrients, particularly in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life when the brain develops. The authors therefore hope that the index will focus attention on this vital stage of early development, as well as on the nutrition of pregnant mothers, when the foetus needs the right micronutrients. If these are lacking, children are much likelier to develop chronic diseases later in life.