Infants and children the world over are failing to consume sufficient quantities of essential vitamins and minerals, according to scientists from the Academy of Paediatric Nutrition.
The problem is not limited to the developing world, delegates at the academy's annual meeting in London were told earlier this week, with children in developed countries just as likely to fall short when it comes to mineral intake.
The academy's remit is to focus on the latest thinking in infant nutrition and disseminate its findings to healthcare professionals and the public. At the current meeting, the focus was on iron, selenium and zinc deficiencies.
Scientists at the meeting presented data showing the prevalence of some mineral deficiencies. Iron deficiency affects 17 per cent of children in developed countries, rising to a staggering 42 per cent in developing nations. In the Philippines it has even been recorded as high as 56.6 per cent in infants between six months and one year old. In addition, over 70 per cent of infants in South Africa have a zinc intake less than two thirds of the recommended daily allowance.
Dr Neville Belton, Honorary Fellow of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh, said: "There are certain windows of opportunity for a child's optimum growth and mental development that should not be missed. From birth to three years of age it is crucial that children receive the correct nutrients."
A study reviewed at the meeting showed that infants who were iron deficient at six months of age showed lower scholastic achievement and poorer fine motor control and behaviour when followed up at five and half years of age, than those who did not develop iron deficient anaemia as infants.
Dr Belton continued: "Once deficiency occurs it is probably too late to achieve optimal development. Ideally we need to prevent iron and other deficiencies when the brain is developing. There is a perception that giving iron later in the diet will compensate for any lack in early childhood. This may not be correct, in some cases the effects may be irreversible."
Dr Perla Santos-Ocampo from the University of the Philippines in Manila said: "Iron deficiency may be a serious public health problem that can lead to irreversible developmental delay, impaired behaviour, lower attention span and problem solving abilities, and growth retardation. In some areas of the world its prevalence remains the same today as it did ten years ago. It is a hidden disability."
Dr El-Khayat, Professor of Paediatrics, Ain-Shams University, Cairo, added: "Iron deficiency is obviously important, however selenium and zinc deficiencies are also common, causing impaired immune and neurological function; this can have a serious, long-term impact on children's development."
Dr Belton concluded: "Deficiencies are not diseases and can be prevented. In the US and Taiwan they have dramatically reduced iron deficiency anaemia in formula fed babies by fortifying infant, follow and toddler formulas. There is a strong argument for older infants and young children to be encouraged to eat iron-fortified foods and to continue with iron supplemented formulas to ensure that all their nutritional needs are fully covered."
As a result of the meeting the academy is developing a scientific paper to use as a platform to help disseminate to healthcare professionals and educate the public.