Micronutrients, also known as vitamins and minerals, are essential components of a high-quality diet and have a profound impact on health.
Consuming a diverse range of nutrient-dense foods alongside breastfeeding is the ideal way for young children to get essential micronutrients in their diets. But in many parts of the world, children’s diets contain insufficient micronutrients, and deficiency in these nutrients is widespread.
Micronutrients, also known as vitamins and minerals, are essential components of a high-quality diet and have a profound impact on health. While they are only required in tiny quantities, micronutrients are the essential building blocks of a healthy brain, bones, and body.
Millions of children suffer from stunted growth, cognitive delays, weakened immunity, and disease as a result of a deficiency of micronutrients. For pregnant women, the lack of essential vitamins and minerals can be catastrophic, increasing the risk of low birth weight, birth defects, stillbirth, and even death.
Main deficiency of micronutrients:
Deficiency is the primary cause of preventable brain damage in children, Its most devastating impacts occur during foetal development and in the first few years of a child’s life. Globally, 30 percent of the world’s population lives in areas with iodine deficiency. Iodine is required during pregnancy and infancy for the infant’s healthy growth and cognitive development.
- Globally, an estimated 1.8 billion people have insufficient iodine intake. Iodine content in most foods and beverages is low. Fortifying salt with iodine is a successful intervention—about 86% of households worldwide consume iodized salt . The amount of iodine added to salt can be adjusted so that people maintain adequate iodine intake even if they consume less salt.
Deficiency affects about one third of children living in low and middle income settings, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Vitamin A deficiency weakens the immune system and increases a child’s risk of dying from infections like measles and diarrheal illnesses.
Vitamin A supports healthy eyesight and immune system functions. Children with vitamin A deficiency face an increased risk of blindness and death from infections such as measles and diarrhoea. Globally, vitamin A deficiency affects an estimated 190 million preschool-age children.
Providing vitamin A supplements to children ages 6 to 59 months is highly effective in reducing deaths from all causes where vitamin A deficiency is a public health concern.
Deficiency can lead to anemia, which increases the risk of hemorrhage and bacterial infection during childbirth and is implicated in maternal deaths. In turn, babies may be born prematurely and suffer from infections, learning disabilities, and delayed development.
Almost 40 percent of pregnant women and more than 40 percent of children under 5 in developing countries are anaemic. About half of these cases are estimated to result from iron deficiency. Iron is critical for motor and cognitive development. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the consequences of iron deficiency. Iron is a leading cause of anemia, which is defined as a low haemoglobin concentration.
- Anemia affects 43% of children younger than 5 years of age and 38% of pregnant women globally.
- Anemia during pregnancy increases the risk of death for the mother and low birth weight for the infant.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends iron and folic acid supplements for reducing anaemia and improving iron status among women of reproductive age Fortifying flour with iron and folic acid is globally recognised as an effective, low-cost intervention.
Deficiency impairs immune function and is associated with an increased risk of gastrointestinal infection. It is also a contributing factor in child deaths due to diarrhoea Zinc deficiency is especially common in lower income countries due to the low dietary intake of zinc-rich foods and inadequate absorption.
Zinc promotes immune functions and helps people resist infectious diseases, including diarrhoea, pneumonia, and malaria Zinc is also needed for healthy pregnancies.
- Globally, 17.3% of the population is at risk for zinc deficiency due to dietary inadequacy.
- Providing zinc supplements reduces the incidence of premature birth, decreases childhood diarrhea and respiratory infections, lowers the number of deaths from all causes, and increases growth and weight gain among infants and young children.
Calcium, vitamin D, and folate deficiencies are a particular concern during pregnancy and can lead to a number of health complications for both the mother and growing baby.
Vitamin D builds healthy bones, vitamin D deficiency causes bone diseases, including rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. Vitamin D is required for muscle and nerve functions. Vitamin D helps the immune system resist bacteria and viruses.
Folate (vitamin B9) is essential in the earliest days of fetal growth for the healthy development of the brain and spine. Ensuring sufficient levels of folate in women prior to conception can reduce neural tube defects (such as spina bifida and anencephaly).
Providing folic acid supplements to women ages 15–49 and fortifying foods such as wheat flour with folic acid reduces the incidence of neural tube defects and neonatal deaths.
How deficiency of micronutrients prevented and treated?
- UNICEF supports the following strategies to prevent and treat micronutrient deficiencies in women and children:
- Dietary diversification strategies help families access a range of nutrient-rich foods.
- They involve educating caregivers on appropriate infant and young child feeding practices and improving the use of locally available foods. Supplementation programs provide specific micronutrients that are not available as part of the regular diet.
- Supplementation is especially important at times when the body has particularly high micronutrient needs—for example, during pregnancy—that are difficult to meet with diet alone. One example is iron and folic acid supplements for pregnant women, which can reduce the risk of low birth weight, maternal anemia, and iron deficiency.
Home fortification programs provide carers with micronutrient powders to sprinkle on the foods they prepare for children at home. This can significantly improve the dietary quality of complementary foods for children from 6 months to the age of 2 or older.
Home fortification empowers carers and provides them with the tools to improve the family diet without requiring a major change to their dietary practice.
These strategies, together with the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, can minimise micronutrient depletion and reduce micronutrient deficiencies among vulnerable groups.