PRESS CONFERENCE ON GLOBAL ALLIANCE FOR IMPROVED NUTRITION
The launch of a new alliance of public and private sector partners -- the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) -- was announced at a Headquarters press conference today. GAIN seeks to leverage cost-effective food fortification initiatives to improve health, cognitive development and productivity in developing nations.
GAIN, according to press materials distributed at the press conference, will support developing countries in the implementation of locally developed food fortification programmes designed to help eliminate the devastating and often deadly effects of vitamin and mineral deficiencies known as micronutrient deficiency. Funds available for the first year will be between $20 and
$25 million, with more than $70 million committed over five years, including
$50 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and initial contributions of $8 million from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), $5.5 million (CDN) from the Micronutrient Initiative, an international centre based in Ottawa, Canada and $500,000 (CDN) from the Canadian International Development Agency.
Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) introduced the participants: Bill Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; President Levy Mwanawasa (Zambia), President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (Sir Lanka), Deputy Prime Minister John Manley (Canada), John Pepper, Chairman of the Board of Procter & Gamble, and Rolf Carriere, Executive Director of GAIN.
Ms. Bellamy said that good nutrition, both before and after birth, was essential to helping children's bodies and brains develop properly. That was why the launch of GAIN was such an important event. There had been some past successes in the fight against malnutrition, but deficiencies in vitamins or minerals, or what was called "micronutrient deficiencies" were still common in developing countries.
Adding vitamins and minerals to staple foods like flour and milk had been a common practice in the industrialized world for decades, she said. The initiative being announced today was exciting, because that would bring the benefits that the industrialized world had enjoyed for some time to the developing world much sooner than had been thought.
A small amount of iodine in a child's diet could make an enormous difference in that child's capacity to learn, she explained. Lack of iodine caused mental retardation in children, and was the leading cause of mental retardation among children in the developing world. In 1990, only about 12 per cent of the salt consumed in the developing world was iodized, whereas today that figure was greater than 70 per cent.
Mr. Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said he was proud to be a partner in that public/private initiative aimed at harnessing the skills and resources needed to address the "crying needs" of the world's children with respect to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
He added that once the systems were in place to get the micronutrients into the basic food chain, the actual cost of sustaining that was extremely low, while the benefits to the children were "quite phenomenal". There had been great success with iodized salt, which helped children achieve their educational potential. In other areas involving vitamin A and folic acid, among others, however, "we are falling short for literally billions of children".
Micronutrients made a huge difference, he said. With measles, for example, proper levels of vitamin A support reduced the mortality rate by more than 30 per cent, which meant a savings of hundreds of thousands of lives. Everyone involved in GAIN believed in advancing the virtuous cycle –- healthier children led to better education and economic investment, and overall stronger societies. There were a few interventions that were so clear cut, such as the addition of micronutrients and vaccinations, it was a shame the world had not put the resources behind them. Now was a great time to address them.
Mr. Pepper said that Procter & Gamble was delighted to be part of the initiative. The future was children and what was owed them was health, education and security. Ten million children each year were dying from malnutrition and other preventable diseases, but that figure did not address the point of those who were living, but had lacked mental alertness because of iron deficiency.
He said the technology was available to bring iodine and vitamin A into a variety of foods at an extremely low cost. The question about how much progress would be made in the next five to 10 years was a question of will, of focus and organization. Proctor & Gamble had already had 20 years in that field, which would be strengthened by the coming together of governments and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
President Mwanawasa welcomed the launch of GAIN for Zambia, especially since deficiencies of vitamin A, iron and iodine were the most prevalent cause of malnutrition in Africa. Iron deficiencies had led to high levels of anaemia among the female population in his country, with estimates of 38 per cent of non-pregnant women afflicted and 47 per cent for pregnant women, and had contributed to maternal and infant mortalities.
He said that severe cases of anaemia had also continued to hamper the mental and physical development of children in Zambia, resulting in a large number of them being stunted in their growth or mentally retarded. Vitamin A deficiency had exposed both mothers and their newborns to a greater risk of common ailments and led to irreversible blindness in some cases in Zambia.
Inadequate iodine in food consumed by Zambians in some parts of the country continued to have devastating effects on pregnant women and young children, he said. Among the common problems were goiter and retarded mental and physical growth. His Government was aware of the negative effects of micronutrient deficiencies on the well-being of its population, especially women and children.
He said his Government had embarked on a number of programmes to address those deficiencies, which had led to an increase of vitamin A supplementation up to 89 per cent for children under five years of age. It also continued to fortify sugar with vitamin A through a programme that was reaching two thirds of the Zambian households. The Government was also promoting the addition of iodine to salt.
Deputy Prime Minister Manley of Canada said the world community had come to understand increasingly that proper nutrition had an enormous impact on the lives, health and well-being of the children and their parents. Vitamin A had been proven to reduce child mortality rates by as much as 23 per cent in Asian and African countries. The simple function of adding iodine to common table salt increased IQ by an average of 13 points, while adding iron to flour could increase a woman's chance of surviving childbirth by as much as 20 per cent.
He said that millions of individuals worldwide were still at risk of death and disability each year because they did not have access to adequate vitamins and minerals, which was taken for granted by most in the developed world. GAIN was a new partnership working to give children the opportunity to have the best possible start in life. That Alliance was based on the important progress made in the struggle against malnutrition during the 1990's.
It was encouraging to see that 91 million newborn children were now protected against cerebral lesions by iodized salt, and that countries were taking measures to protect their children, he said. The devastating consequences had been recognized and awareness had been raised that those vital micronutrient programmes cost literally pennies per child. Two thirds of African children now received vitamin A supplements, and millions of women and children now had access to iron-fortified flour in India and Northern Africa.
Despite such progress, however, much more remained to be done. Thirty per cent of households in countries affected by malnutrition still did not have access to iodized salt, he said. Half of the children at risk of death from vitamin A deficiency did not receive supplements. That was why GAIN, with its focus on food fortification and innovative partnership, was very important.
With 2 billion individuals suffering from micronutrient deficiencies worldwide, the power of public, private and civic organizations must be harnessed to reach those who were most vulnerable, he said. Canada had committed itself to an initial contribution of $500,000 (CDN). GAIN sought to help countries develop their own solutions to micronutrient deficiencies.
President Chandrika of Sri Lanka joined the others in urging the success of that promising initiative.
A correspondent asked Mr. Pepper what other ways Procter & Gamble might help GAIN, in addition to adding nutrients to food. He said that Procter & Gamble would start with technology and the combination it had developed of adding iron/iodine/vitamin A/folic acid and zinc to foods in a way that kept those ingredients stable, while eliminating their often negative taste. Procter & Gamble had gained some experience with that in an orange juice drink in both the Philippines and Venezuela.
He explained that beyond its placement in its own brand, the company would be working to see how an adaptation of that technology could be brought into other foodstuffs that would allow it to enter into the diet of different countries in a most natural way. That might be in bread or soup, or rice. That work was still under way and would very much depend on the individual local country identifying the diet that would be most compatible with micronutrient
additions. Procter & Gamble could also contribute its communications and partnership skills.
Was there a contribution that Microsoft could make to GAIN? another correspondent asked. Mr. Gates said that to the degree that software was needed and used, Microsoft would be glad to provide that. "The Foundation is kicking this off with a significant financial commitment," and there were seven other Governments, including Canada, which were initial contributors. He hoped many others would join.
Another correspondent, noting that Mr. Gates' Foundation had contributed $50 million to GAIN, asked what he hoped to achieve? Mr. Gates said that the benefits of GAIN's activities would be measured in terms of lives saved and lives improved. The goal was to help the countries get going so that the local suppliers of the very inexpensive foodstuffs could, as part of the normal process, bring micronutrients into such staple foods as maize and rice. In two or three years, he hoped to be able to assess whether the financial and technological resources had led to achievement of those goals.
Of all the initiatives involving children, why had Canada chosen GAIN, in particular? another correspondent asked of that country's Deputy Prime Minister. Mr. Manley said that built on work Canada had been doing and had been an area of focus in its overseas assistance programmes. There had been some notable success, but there was a huge need that was still untouched. GAIN created the potential for much more effective distribution of micronutrient-enhanced foods.
Replying to a question about the financial gain for Procter & Gamble from the initiative and what his response would be to criticism that the company just wanted to sell more of its product, Mr. Pepper said the criticism did not worry him; what counted was what it did. The company had expected financial benefit, since it was creating a brand called "nutra start".
The success of nutra start would generate funds for continued research and the development of new micronutrients, he said. While the company had to be financially successful, the first part of its purpose statement was about improving the lives of the world's consumers. That was not just a bunch of words, he added.
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