But more needs to be done to help the 250 million people still suffering from the devastating effects of iron deficiency anaemia, vitamin A deficiency and other forms of hidden hunger, they added.
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 Chinese government for their 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.
In 2002 alone, 14 million newborns benefited from this extra iodine in their mothers' diets, safe guarding them from brain damage and raising their IQ by 10 to 15 points. If these achievements on iodine are sustained, China's economy is expected to swell by US$25 billion over the next ten years thanks to a more productive workforce, she said.
"This is just one example of the substantial return countries can expect for what amounts to a tiny per capita investment in children's physical and intellectual wellbeing," Bellamy said.
But along with Wang Longde, the ministry of health vice minister, she stressed that the government's success with iodine should be just the beginning of a campaign to increase children's access to lifesaving vitamins and minerals.
China's 'Damage Assessment Report', produced by UNICEF and the Micronutrient Initiative, shows that iron deficiency may be impairing cognitive development in over 20 per cent of Chinese children between six and 24 months. About 12 per cent of children are deficient in vitamin A, which leads to impaired immunity in children, so there is an increased likelihood of infectious diseases including pneumonia and diarrhoea.
In China, UNICEF, the Global Alliance for Improving Nutrition and Asian Development Bank have been working with the government and private food companies to promote the fortification of staple foods like flour, soy sauce and salt with iodine, iron and other vitamins and minerals.
Purchase of vitamins, while on the increase, especially since the SARS epidemic, remains an option for the wealthier Chinese. Child-specific vitamins and supplements are however growing an average 24 per cent annually, according to a new report from Euromonitor, with sales increasing from RMB33 million in 1998 to RMB100 million in 2003.
UNICEF and the Micronutrient Initiative have prepared over 80 Damage Assessment Reports for the world's nations most seriously affected by nutrient deficiencies, assessing the extent of the impact. Bellamy urged these countries and all global leaders to follow China's example in making deficiency control a major public health priority.