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Nutrition

Iron

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The problem: about iron deficiency


Up to 4 to 5 billion people may suffer from iron deficiency and an estimated 2 billion are anaemic.  Women and young children are most vulnerable: 50 per cent of pregnant women and 40 to 50 per cent of children under five in developing countries are iron deficient.  While insufficient iron consumption is one cause, blood loss during menstruation and parasitic infections such as intestinal worms and malaria can also cause or aggravate the condition.

The body needs iron to manufacture haemoglobin – the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body – and also for several enzymes necessary for muscle, brain and immune-system function. The body’s iron requirements increase during menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding and high-growth periods. Iron is stored in the bone marrow, spleen and liver. Iron deficiency occurs when these supplies run low and anaemia when the levels are severely depleted. Deficiencies in folic acid (or folate), vitamin A, ascorbic acid, riboflavin and various minerals can also contribute to anaemia.

Common visible signs of iron deficiency include paleness of the skin, the tongue and inside lips. Others symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath and dizziness. Anaemia increases the risk of haemorrhage and sepsis (overwhelming bacterial infection) during childbirth and is implicated in 20 per cent of maternal deaths. These women may give birth to premature babies or low-birth-weight infants who suffer from infections, weakened immunity, learning disabilities, impaired physical development and, in severe cases, death.

The solution: supplementation, fortification and anti-malarial interventions


Iron deficiency and anaemia take a huge toll on the lives and productivity of both adults and children alike. However, they can be addressed on numerous fronts. For pregnant women, who have greater iron needs, iron/folate supplements can prevent maternal and infant deaths. Educational campaigns clarify the important role of iron in the diet. When iron-rich foods – liver, red meats, eggs, fish, whole-grain bread, legumes – are not widely available or affordable, fortifying staple foods such as flour is an alternative for reaching a large portion of the population. Finally, in malaria-endemic countries, anti-malarial interventions such as bednets are critical for preventing anaemia because malaria is often a major underlying factor.

Goal


Reduce the prevalence of anaemia (including iron deficiency) by one third by 2010.

How will this be achieved?


UNICEF and its partners are working to ensure pregnant women receive a low-cost iron/folate supplement that can prevent maternal and infant deaths. As a partner in the Roll Back Malaria initiative, UNICEF collaborates with the World Health Organization , United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank  to provide insecticide-treated mosquito nets for children under the age of five and for pregnant women and to help recovery by trying to ensure that those suffering from malaria have rapid access to treatment.