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Statement by Bellamy on launch of the Vitamin & Mineral DAR report for China

BEIJING, 3 September 2004 - Speaking at the Beijing launch of the “Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency: A Damage Assessment Report for China”, UNICEF’s Executive Director Carol Bellamy praised the Government of China and the Ministry of Health for their extraordinary efforts to reach over 90 per cent of China’s 1.3 billion population with iodized salt, protecting a total of 133 million infants from brain damage due to iodine deficiency over the last ten years.

UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy:

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates:

On behalf of UNICEF, I am delighted to join with the Ministry of Health and the Micronutrient Initiative to report on China’s progress in eliminating Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies (VMDs).

The Damage Assessment Report we are launching today – one of 80 individual assessments of the countries most seriously affected by Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies – highlights China’s phenomenal success in reversing the ruinous consequences of Iodine Deficiency Disorders (IDD).

Since 1993, an estimated 133 million newborns have been protected from brain damage. And China’s salt iodisation coverage has now reached 90 per cent of this vast country’s households – a level that has been steadily maintained for more than five years.

The speed and efficiency of China’s IDD drive reflects a recognition of a somber fact of life – that there is no more insidious threat to the lives, health, and development of children than nutritional deficiencies. Nor is there any threat more preventable.

Every year in the developing world, nearly 11 million children under the age of 5 die of common and preventable childhood ailments – and in some 45 per cent of these deaths, year in and year out, nutritional shortcomings are either directly or indirectly involved.

But the yearly death toll is only part of the story.  Poor nutrition not only kills, it maims.

Children who survive the early consequences of nutritional deficiencies are often left crippled, chronically vulnerable to disease – and intellectually impaired, unable to concentrate and learn. And these are not problems children grow out of – they are permanent.

The crucial nature of the threat is dramatised by the fact that five of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – on poverty and hunger alleviation, education (particularly girls’ education), child health, maternal health, and importance of partnerships – cannot be achieved without addressing the problem of nutritional deficiencies in children and women.

The heartbreak and loss that nutritional deficiencies visit on children and their families are painful enough. Even more jarring are their long-term effects on national and global economies  and overall development goals. These are examined in detail in WHO’s 2002 World Health Report  – and were later spotlighted in a recent UNICEF presentation to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The seriousness of the macro-economic threat posed by Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency is apparent in the positive results of China’s IDD programme. The decline of the incidence of goiter in China has sparked an economic gain estimated at 0.2 per cent of GDP per year.

The Government of China is to be commended on its efforts to ensure that the provision of micronutrients be reflected in the national policy framework of the 11th Five Year Plan. And UNICEF congratulates the Ministry of Health on its inspired efforts to expand salt iodisation in partnership with the salt industry.

China’s leadership in addressing nutritional deficiencies – especially IDD, iron and folate shortfalls, and Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies – has made it a model for other countries in the region.

But much more hard work remains if every Chinese citizen is to someday enjoy social well being and economic prosperity on a sustained basis. Last October, I was in China to hail the Government’s success with IDD elimination.  But there are still a few provinces where people continue to suffer needlessly suffer from iodine deficiency.

The Damage Assessment Report we are releasing  today includes these findings:

That each year, in marginal populations, 2 million babies are born with intellectual impairments because of iodine deficiency disorders;

That 20 to 40  per cent of children between 6 and 24 months old are at risk of impairment of cognitive development because of iron deficiency;

That because of vitamin A deficiency, 12 per cent of China’s children have an increased likelihood of contracting infectious ailments like diarrhea and pneumonia;

And that decreased productivity because of iron and iodine deficiency could lower China’s GDP by 3.8 per cent over the next 10 years.
These are conditions that must be addressed now. To that end, the Damage Assessment Report recommends that China move rapidly to implement an integrated programme of inexpensive and proven steps, beginning with efforts to fortify staple foods like flour, soy sauce and salt with vitamins and minerals. We also urge the implementation of measures to supplement diets in targeted areas with low-cost vitamin and mineral capsules, syrups or tablets. And finally, we urge that communities be informed about how to improve the vitamin and mineral content of their diet.

China recently joined Australia, Germany, Italy and Spain and other countries in instituting substantive serious measures to ensure that their food is adequately fortified and that micronutrient supplements are provided to pregnant women.

Flour fortification with iron and other micronutrients has been tested in two provinces,  supported by UNICEF and the US Centers for Disease Control. And soy sauce fortification with iron has been launched as well.  China received a grant from GAIN to finance the expansion of these two initiatives to bring fortified flour to almost 60 million people and to provide fortified soy sauce to almost 129 million within 5 years.

Recent findings have shown the promising effects of multimicronutrient supplements in pregnancy, including reducing anemia in mothers and low birth weight among their children. 

The 2002 World Health Report highlights the importance of periconceptual nutrition as a key determinant of fetal development and child and adult health. And there is also evidence to suggest that providing a multimicronutrient supplement to HIV-positive women during pregnancy could help slow the progress of the disease. 

In view of these positive developments, UNICEF urges China to consider the earliest possible implementation of policies to promote optimal fetal development, beginning with making supplements of micronutrients available to pregnant women.

Doing this would not only help to reduce the burden of 100,000 Chinese infants born each year at increased risk of death due to maternal anemia and poor fetal development. It would benefit the countless children born each year with birth defects as a result of folate deficiency – as well the life-threatening burdens of disease in later life related to heart disease and stroke in later adult life. 

There are many opportunities for rapid progress – especially when governments join hands with the media and the private sector, as well as NGOs – and children and young people themselves to raise public consciousness – and spread the word.

Mr. Chairman: The conquest of malnutrition will strike a major blow against the global poverty that enslaves 1.3 billion children and their families in lives of almost unimaginable suffering and want. The dream of a just and peaceful world hinges on the eradication of that poverty – and the deep inequities that perpetuate it. 

The task before us is not only a moral imperative. It is a practical and affordable possibility – and it starts with investing in children and their rights. I can assure you that no investment pays a higher return.

Thank you.

Carol Bellamy

UNICEF Executive Director




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