The State of the World's Children 1998: Focus on Nutrition

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Spotlight: Iron

 

Impact of deficiency

Iron deficiency anaemia, the most common nutritional disorder in the world, impairs immunity and reduces the physical and mental capacities of populations. In infants and young children, even mild anaemia can impair intellectual development. Anaemia in pregnancy is an important cause of maternal mortality, increasing the risk of haemorrhage and sepsis during childbirth. Infants born to anaemic mothers often suffer from low birthweight and anaemia themselves. Causes include blood loss associated with menstruation and parasitic infections such as hookworm, but an inadequate intake of iron is the main cause.

Who is affected

Nearly 2 billion people are estimated to be anaemic and even more are iron deficient, the vast majority of them women. Between 40 and 50 per cent of children under five in developing countries - and over 50 per cent of pregnant women - are iron deficient.

What iron does

The body needs iron to produce haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen. Iron is also a component of the many enzymes essential for the adequate functioning of brain, muscle and the immune-system cells.

A certain amount of iron is stored in the liver, spleen and bone marrow. Iron deficiency develops as these stores are depleted and there is insufficient iron absorption. In anaemia, the iron deficiency is so severe that the production of haemoglobin is significantly reduced. The main symptoms and signs are paleness of the tongue and inside the lips, tiredness and breathlessness. Deficiencies of folic acid, vitamin A, ascorbic acid, riboflavin and various minerals can also contribute to anaemia.

Sources

Iron is found in liver, lean meats, eggs, whole-grain breads and molasses.

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