Got Zinc? Kids Don't, and Malnutrition Results

A mine in Cornwall, England

A mine in Cornwall, England, reopened after almost 10 years to meet fresh demand for metals such as tin, zinc and copper. Matt Cardy/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Cardy/Getty Images

At a superambitious conference in Copenhagen this week, there was a curious and memorable proposal to increase vitamin A and zinc supplements in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa as a way to improve health and economic conditions.

We're talking about micronutrients, says economics professor Sue Horton. "If you read the cereal box, you'd see info about iron, zinc, folic acid," says Horton, who presented her proposal at the the Copenhagen Consensus Center Conference. "These are the things we need in very small quantities to keep us healthy."

The problem is that in developing countries — where even buying basic foods such as grains and meats can be a struggle — children rarely get adequate quantity or quality when it comes to food.

This bucks an old standard in global food aid, Horton says, in which the prevailing idea had been just to get food, lots of it, to the poor. Now, with new research, Horton says it's clear that feeding supplements to children results in dramatic increases in health.

Even better, that increased health leads to increased economic gains, as well.

In a study begun more than 25 years ago, one group of Guatemalan children was fed zinc while another similar group got no zinc. As the kids became adults, all other factors being equal, the ones who were fed zinc earned on average 50 percent more than those who got no zinc.

"It was a very dramatic study," Horton says. "It takes 25 years to see these effects." Now that we know this, she says, we can do something about it.

Horton says that for $1.2 billion a year the world's malnourished children could receive the critical micronutrients. But she says not only money is required. To implement the food additive program would require massive organization. Flour companies need new equipment, governments would need to monitor to see that nutrient addition is done at safe and proper levels, and — perhaps most important — citizens need to be convinced the nutrients are worth eating. "It requires lots of cooperation," she says.

Horton says it was a thrill to present her proposal to the Copenhagen conference's Nobel Prize-winning attendees. "I think they knew, but no one had seen the numbers placed quite this well."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.