3 September 2004 With 250 million Chinese still suffering the devastating effects of deficiency in vitamins and minerals, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) today praised the Government's remedial efforts and said urgently needed further action could produce multi-billion dollar benefits in the world's most populous nation.
Speaking at the launch in Beijing of the "Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency: A Damage Assessment Report for China", UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy lauded the Government's "extraordinary efforts" to reach over 90 per cent of China's 1.3 billion people with iodized salt, protecting a total of 133 million infants from brain damage due to iodine deficiency over the last 10 years.
In 2002 alone, 14 million newborns benefited from this extra iodine in their mothers' diets, raising their IQ by 10 to 15 points. If this achievement is sustained, China's economy is expected to swell by $25 billion over the next 10 years thanks to a more productive workforce.
"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 well being," Ms. Bellamy said.
UNICEF and the Chinese Ministry of Health noted that the cost of reducing vitamin and mineral deficiencies was only a couple of cents per person per year, while the potential economic benefits could be as high as $86 billion over the next 10 years.
Ms. Bellamy and China's Vice Health Minister of Health Wang Longde stressed that the Government's success with iodine should be just the start of the campaign to increase children's access to the lifesaving vitamins and minerals to offset such forms of hidden hunger as iron deficiency anaemia and vitamin A deficiency.
The report, drafted by UNICEF and the Micronutrient Initiative, an Ottawa-based non-profit organization, shows that the cupboard is still bare for many Chinese children who are struggling without the essential micronutrients they need to survive and thrive.
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 Mr. Wang said led to impaired immunity in children with the increased likelihood of infectious diseases, including pneumonia and diarrhoea.
"Of the 10 million children dying every year, mostly from preventable causes, lack of these essential nutrients shares the blame in more than half," Ms. Bellamy said of the problem worldwide. "Reducing this toll is a moral imperative. It is also a practical and affordable possibility, guaranteed to save millions of lives."