Remarks by Mr. Kul C. Gautam, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency Global Progress Report
UNICEF House, 24 March 2004
UNICEF works to give every child the best possible start in life. How do we do that? We do so by working with parents and communities to give our children our love, a family, and the best care and education that we can possibly provide for them.
We try to anchor our children in a caring community, a safe, healthy and protective environment. We try to give them time to learn, play and grow.
We cannot know, in advance, what is in our children’s future. Who would have known that a little boy born in a village in the South African Transkei in July 1918 would change the face of South Africa?
Who would have guessed that a little girl, helped by UNICEF after the Second World War, whose transcendent beauty entertained millions, and whose untiring work and caring heart would help millions of children to survive and thrive in the world?
No, we cannot know what is in our children’s future. And we cannot choose which child to care for. We must care for them all.
None of us expect our children to be born into an ideal world. But all of us hope for them to be born into a world that is fit for children.
Yet this report that the Micronutrient Initiative (MI) and UNICEF are launching here today shows that we – all of us – are failing a third of the world’s children.
We are failing them because, we are allowing 20 million babies a year to be born mentally impaired due to iodine deficiency.
We are failing them because, we are allowing some 40% of children under 5 to have their immune systems compromised because of Vitamin A deficiency.
We are failing them because we are allowing 50,000 women a year to die during child birth because of iron deficiency anemia.
We are failing them because of folate deficiency which causes 200,000 birth defects every year.
We are failing them because they will grow up in societies whose economic development and social and cultural fabric are damaged by vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
And worst of all, we are unforgivably failing them despite the fact that all of these problems – all of the vitamin and mineral deficiencies – can be solved easily and inexpensively.
Why is this so? And what can we do about it? The answers are in this report. It should be required reading for everyone who cares about the future of children and the development of nations.
The report offers a global overview of vitamin and mineral deficiency, of the progress being made against it, and of the challenges that lie ahead if the world is to bring under control a public health problem that prevents as many as a third of the world’s people from reaching their physical and mental potential.
In addition to this global progress report, damage assessment reports are being issued for 80 individual countries – home to about 80 per cent of the world’s population - that will present the most comprehensive picture to date of the toll being taken nationally by vitamin and mineral deficiency.
Vitamin and mineral deficiency is the source of the most massive “hidden hunger” and malnutrition in the world today.
The “hidden hunger” due to micronutrient deficiency does not produce hunger as we know it. You may not feel it in the belly, but it strikes at the core of your health and vitality. It is especially damaging to human brain, learning ability and productivity.
Unfortunately, the “hidden hunger” remains widespread, posing devastating threats to health, education, economic growth and indeed, to human dignity, in developing countries.
We also know today that micronutrient deficiencies are subtle and insidious. They can cause blindness and brain damage. They can induce stillbirths and abortions. They make people fatigued and lethargic.
They can make ordinary childhood diseases such as diarrhoea, malaria and measles fatal. They contribute to the high rates of maternal and child deaths.
Micronutrient deficiencies render investment in education less effective as children are unable to concentrate in their studies.
To further compound this human suffering, the economic losses attributable to micronutrient deficiencies are huge – up to 5% of the GDP of many countries.
The enormous impact of micronutrient deficiency is largely invisible. Silently, micronutrient deficiencies trap people, communities and entire countries in a cycle of poor health, poor educability, poor productivity and consequent poverty, often without the victims ever knowing the cause.
Yet we’re dealing with a problem that has essentially been solved in much of the developed world, and for which there are available and affordable solutions.
We can fortify staple foods such as flour, sugar, salt, margarine or cooking oil, with essential vitamins and minerals for a few cents per person per year.
We can distribute vitamin and mineral supplements, especially to vulnerable groups such as children. A vitamin A capsule, for example, is effective for up to 6 months and costs as little as 2 cents. A three-month supply of iron tablets for pregnant women costs 20 cents.
We can ensure everyone is informed about the kinds of foods that can increase the intake and absorption of vitamins and minerals.
And we can control diseases like malaria, measles, diarrhoea, and parasitic infections, which can help the body to absorb and retain essential vitamins and minerals.
It’s all been done before, in the industrialized world. And the report shows that the technologies to do so are now so simple and so inexpensive that we can rapidly control vitamin and mineral deficiencies worldwide.
If we combine our efforts and our energy, we can have an extraordinary impact in the fight against vitamin and mineral deficiencies and achieve global progress in a way that few of us have imagined to be possible.
We have all heard about the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations to combat poverty, hunger and diseases and to promote education and health. But not many of us would have linked elimination of vitamins and mineral deficiencies as an important part and powerful instrument to achieve these lofty goals!
Indeed, in May 2002, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children specifically called for the virtual elimination of iodine deficiency by 2005; elimination of vitamin A deficiency by 2010, and a reduction of at least 30 per cent in the global prevalence of iron deficiency, also by the end of the decade.
These are important subsets of the Millennium Development Goals. To achieve these goals, throughout the 1990s, international agencies have been working with governments, civil society and the private sector to fortify foods, improve diets, and reach people with supplements.
Indeed, ending vitamin and mineral deficiency can be one of the cheapest and most practical ways to achieving the MDGs.
The report talks about how important partnerships have been forged to combat vitamin and mineral deficiencies. We are proud of our partners in this endeavour. Joining us right here are some of our key partners – the World Health Organization (WHO), the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), the International Council for Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders (ICCIDD), the Iodine Network and the Salt Industry, the Micronutrient Initiative (MI) and many others – individuals and institutions – who have been passionate advocates and activists in combating “hidden hunger.”
Friends, here at the United Nations, a dominant subject of debate in recent years has been “weapons of mass destruction” or WMD. As you will see in this report, VMDs – vitamin and mineral deficiency – are also tantamount to WMDs for millions of people in the world. But the report also points out how we can use our knowledge and experience in combating VMDs as the veritable weapons of mass protection.
I commend you this report and ask you to join us in a noble campaign to combat VMD.
About Kul Gautam