Deficiency in vitamins and minerals is responsible for impairing intellectual development, compromising immune systems, provoking birth defects, and consigning some 2 billion people to lives below their physical and mental potential, say scientists contributing to the report commissioned by the children's charity Unicef and the Micronutrient Initiative.
Presenting the report at the World Economic Forum, taking place in Davos, Switzerland this week, the charities say that whole populations can be protected against vitamin and micronutrient deficiencies by food fortification and supplementation. Making governments aware of the financial impact of poor health on their nations' economies could prompt them to act.
Last year Unicef helped launch the WHO-led Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) to foster private-public projects to improve micronutrient deficiencies.
The current chair of the organisation, Jay Naidoo, also chairman of the board of the Development Bank of Southern Africa, says that if wheat flour was fortified in the 75 most needy countries with iron and folic acid, iron deficiency could be reduced by 10 per cent, and birth defects could be lowered by a third. Such fortification would cost a total of about $85 million, about 4 cents per person.
"As a result, we estimate these countries would gain $275 million in increased productivity and $200 million from the enhanced earning potential," Naidoo claims. "There are many other examples to emphasize that public-private partnerships to invest in food fortification are investments not only in health, but also in national economies."
The report summarises the findings of nutrition 'damage assessment' studies in 80 nations and claims to throw new light on vitamin and mineral deficiency levels that are almost impossible to detect without laboratory tests.
Iron deficiency has been shown to impair mental development in young children and is lowering national Iqs, according to the report. It also undermines adult productivity, with estimated losses of 2 per cent of GDP in the worst-affected countries.
Severe iron deficiency anaemia is also causing the deaths of an estimated 50,000 women a year during childbirth while folate deficiency is causing approximately 200,000 severe birth defects every year and is associated with roughly 1 in 10 adult deaths from heart disease.
There are also severe deficiencies of vitamin A, leading to the deaths of 1 million youngsters each year, while a lack of iodine in pregnancy is causing as many as 20 million babies a year to be born mentally impaired.
"It's no longer acceptable to simply identify symptoms of micronutrient deficiency in individuals and then treat them," said Unicef executive director Carol Bellamy. "We have to protect entire populations against the devastating consequences of vitamin and mineral deficiency, especially children. In the industrialized world we've been doing it for years. There is no excuse for not reaching every human being with these simple but life-saving micronutrients."
But UN goals to bring vitamin and mineral deficiency under control in the developing world will not be achieved, the report argues, without a more ambitious, visionary, and systematic commitment to "deploy known solutions on the same scale as the known problems".
The solutions include fortifying foods that are regularly consumed by most people (such as flour, salt, sugar, cooking oil and margarine), giving vitamin and mineral supplements to women and children and using better education to inform communities about the kinds of foods that can increase the intake and absorption of needed vitamins and minerals.
"The nutrition gap is one we can close immediately, simply and relatively cheaply," added Naidoo.
The South African government last year received a grant worth US$2.8 million from GAIN to support a food fortification programme over the next three years. China, Morocco and Vietnam will also receive support this year to improve the nutritional value of their food supplies.