Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

New Report: Smart Investment in Nutrition Needed Now

April 18, 2013

 Fortunately, scientists have developed a simple remedy: a small, one-gram sachet of vitamins that costs only $.03 per serving, known as “micronutrient powders” (MNPs). These tasteless powders can be sprinkled on any homemade complementary food, instantly boosting micronutrient intake and helping prevent IDA among infants and young children. 

This week leaders from around the world convened in Ireland for the Dublin Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Climate Justice. One of the critical issues they face is the stark comparison between how high- and low-income countries are able to nourish their children. Parents from high-income countries are able to go to great lengths to make or buy nutrient-rich, fortified baby food. While some moms and dads whip fruits, veggies, and meats together to boost their infant’s growth, others peruse endless grocery aisles filled with expensive, brightly-colored brands. In 2011, the global baby food and pediatric nutrition market was worth ~$38 billion and was growing at ~8% per year, driven by an ever-widening array of products and by parents demanding the best nutrition for their infants and young children.

Despite similar intentions to raise healthy children, parents across Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East often lack the means to make or purchase nutrient-rich baby foods (or what are called ‘complementary foods’ since they complement continued breastfeeding).  Instead, mothers often provide their infants with small servings of the starch-based staple food that forms the backbone of the family’s diet.

Unfortunately, on their own, most staple foods typically lack the critical micronutrients — such as iron, iodine, and vitamin A — essential to a baby’s physical, behavioral, and cognitive development. This in turn means that millions of children worldwide, and up to 70% of children in some countries, develop iron deficiency anemia (IDA). Studies have shown that even moderate IDA causes infants to score significantly lower on tests of mental performance.

This cognitive impact is long-lasting and translates to lower life-long earnings: economists estimate that the effect of iron deficiency anemia in childhood is associated with a 4% decrease in hourly earnings later in life. Not surprisingly, these deficiencies also hinder economic growth: when pervasive in society, they can shave up to ~2% from potential GDP.

Fortunately, scientists have developed a simple remedy: a small, one-gram sachet of vitamins that costs only $.03 per serving, known as “micronutrient powders” (MNPs). These tasteless powders can be sprinkled on any homemade complementary food, instantly boosting micronutrient intake and helping prevent IDA among infants and young children.  

Despite the strong recommendation of the World Health Organization and the endorsement of expert groups such as the Home Fortification Technical Advisory Group (HF-TAG), MNPs have been slow to scale.   Less than 5% of anemic children worldwide and only a tiny fraction of the 34 million in high burden countries targeted for this intervention have received this critical product. (For a thorough discussion of this, I’d recommend The World Bank’s report, “Scaling Up Nutrition: What will it cost?”)

A new report from Results for Development (R4D) Institute calls on the global community to creatively scale access to this vital and inexpensive product and make a significant contribution toward reaching the 95% of children still in need.   The report encourages an innovative and integrated delivery approach for MNPs that relies primarily on public sector channels to reach lower-income consumers who may not be able to afford a full 60-day course of MNPs, while also leveraging private sector channels (e.g. private pharmacies, kiosks) to extend reach to middle-income consumers who may also confront high burdens of IDA.  The report also emphasizes using social marketing & micro-franchising outlets such as door-to-door sales models to target all households in need, including for example the rural poor who may not be reached by public clinics.

To significantly scale MNPs, it is urgently important to secure increased resourcing and advocacy for this particular intervention and nutrition more broadly. The report calls on countries and the global community to provide ~$200 million annually to deliver MNPs to all children in high-burden countries targeted for micronutrient supplementation, consistent with recommendations from the World Bank and the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement.

Regardless of income levels or geography, it is clear that all parents should have the opportunity to provide their infants with the critical nutrients essential for healthy development. With smart, targeted investments from the global community, MNPs can play a vital role in making this happen.

To learn more click this infographic.

Additional Resource: Executive Summary of R4D Report, Nutrition for a Better Tomorrow:

Scaling Up Delivery of Micronutrient Powders for Infants and Young Children.

 
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