Got Zinc? Kids Don't, and Malnutrition Results 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.
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Got Zinc? Kids Don't, and Malnutrition Results

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Got Zinc? Kids Don't, and Malnutrition Results

Got Zinc? Kids Don't, and Malnutrition Results

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Yesterday on the show, we discussed an interesting - some may say fascinating, others may say a little less than fascinating, but please, don't degrade it further than a little less than fascinating. We discussed this conference that was occurring in Copenhagen. The Copenhagen Consensus Conference asks some of the world's top thinkers to wrestle with 10 huge problems, from hunger to terrorism to war, and to answer the following question.

You've got 75 billion dollars, where can we best spend that money? Not, what's the biggest problem? Not, what's the easiest solution? But what's the smartest way to spend money to have the maximum impact? An early leader in the category of best-bang-for-your-buck solution to a huge problem was offered by Sue Horton, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. Hello, Professor Horton.

Dr. SUSAN HORTON (Vice President, Wilfrid Laurier University): Good morning.

PESCA: And in a word, it's micronutrients. Tell me what you mean by that.

Dr. HORTON: Well, if you read the cereal box as you ate your cereal this morning, you would have seen information about iron and vitamin A and zinc and folic acid, and those are micronutrients. They're things we need in very small quantities in our diet to keep us healthy.

PESCA: And who's not getting micronutrients? Certainly not American kids who are scarfing down Life cereal.

Dr. HORTON: Well, it's the kids in developing countries whose diets, firstly, aren't adequate in terms of the quantity of food that they eat. But even more important is the terms of the quality of the food. I mean, not only are they not getting Life cereal, but they're also not eating enough fruit or enough vegetables or enough eggs because those things are really expensive in developing countries.

PESCA: Is this a new way to look at hunger? I think the old conception was, you know, let's get them enough rice. Let's get them enough grain. But you're looking at the actual quality of food that people eat or don't eat, as the case may be?

Dr. HORTON: Yes, it's more recent science. We've learned about the importance of these micronutrients. And you're right, it was initially, the idea was get enough calories, and that will solve the problem.

PESCA: And so, what's the evidence we have that micronutrients can do a great job?

Dr. HORTON: Well, we have evidence from science, so people do what they call randomized control trials. And so they, you know, for example, would feed iron supplements to one group of kids or adults and give a placebo, you know, a sugar pill, to another group of kids or adults and monitor what happens. So that's one way we know. But also from our own country, I mean, the U.S., it's mandated that these micronutrients are added to, for example, flour.

PESCA: As you were giving this presentation, and I've been following it on blogs as you were in Copenhagen, there was one study about zinc in Guatemala which just jumped out on me, and I put it on my BlackBerry, in fact, and probably talked a dozen people's ears off yesterday. You will not believe the beneficial effects of this really cheap ingredient, zinc. Can you tell me a little bit about that survey?

Dr. HORTON: So zinc is known to have - we've recently learned it has important effects, firstly on growth, so children who don't get enough zinc end up shorter than their peers, and also it has dramatic affects on infection, so children with diarrhea who are treated with additional zinc are able to recover faster. And in very poor countries, they are less likely to die.

PESCA: And I think that they started giving zinc to Guatemalans, you know, 20 years ago or 30 years ago and just tracked the kids from the same village. Some had zinc, some didn't. And as those kids became adults, the difference in the wages they earned and everything else was the same. If you had zinc, you earned about 50 percent more than someone who didn't have zinc. That was amazing to me.

Dr. HORTON: Yeah, it wasn't just zinc. They gave them a group of nutrients. But you're right. It was a very dramatic study. And I mean, it takes us 25 years to see these effects, and also this is science that takes a long time to get the evidence.

PESCA: OK, so now that we know it, and we know that there are almost 180 million chronically-malnourished children worldwide, the question is, how much would it cost to get them to take one ingredient or one micronutrient, zinc - how much would that cost these kids?

Dr. HORTON: The whole package of things I looked at cost 1.2 billion per year, which is a steal if you think that these Nobel-winning economists who've been given 15 billion a year to spend. And for individual micronutrients, it's a matter of millions of dollars.

PESCA: And so I think this - what was the stat with zinc? Something like five cents?

Dr. HORTON: Iodine, five cents. And zinc, it's pretty close if you put it as a fortificant in flour. I mean, these things cost pennies. Iron, for example, I know, costs 12 cents, and I think zinc is similar per person per year.

PESCA: Per year!

Dr. HORTON: Yes.

PESCA: So you can get - you know, here's the math, five cents times 180 million chronically-malnourished kids. That costs nine million dollars. And I was just looking at the salaries of some Major League Baseball players. Mike Hampton makes 16 million dollars, and that guy hasn't pitched in three years. It's not Mike Hampton's job to solve the world's zinc problem, but it is amazing to me that, if he wanted to, he could.

Dr. HORTON: Yes. Or we could cut military spending.

PESCA: No! Mike Hampton is the answer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: So there has to be something besides the money, considering the U.S. government gives out 15 billion in aid. Privately, Americans give out 34 billion in aid. What is the hurdle in getting kids such a cheap solution to their problem?

Dr. HORTON: Well, some of it requires organizational capacity. In order, let's say, to get zinc into flour in a developing country, you have to have the government on side, you know, to make it mandatory. You have to work with the flour mills to make sure they have the equipment to put the zinc into the flour. You have to have labs so that you can do quality testing, so that you can prove that the zinc has been added to the flour.

You have to make sure it's done at safe levels. So it requires a lot of people's cooperation. And then you also have to do what's called social marketing to let the people know that this is why we're adding this nutrient to your essential foods, and this is the benefit that you'll get from it. So they will support this, too.

PESCA: But it doesn't seem like any of those solutions cost that much money. The cost-benefit analysis of micronutrients still works out, compared to many of the other things they're talking about really, really well, right?

Dr. HORTON: Yeah, hey, I'm glad you're advertising my paper.

PESCA: Right. We want you to win. Actually, I have no dog in this fight. It was just one that I was especially blown away by, and that's my last question. The other attendees at this Copenhagen conference are, maybe, somewhere arguing, let's stop war, and some are arguing no, we've got to attack trade barriers. Were they impressed by your findings about micronutrients? Did you get much positive reaction?

Dr. HORTON: Yeah, I certainly did. It was really a thrill to present these to these Nobel Prize-winning economists.

PESCA: And even the Nobel Prize-winners didn't really realize what you were saying before you said it?

Dr. HORTON: Oh, I think they knew, but no one had seen the numbers placed quite this way.

PESCA: Well, that's amazing. Thank you very much, Sue Horton, an economics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. Thank you very much, Sue.

Dr. HORTON: Thank you.


Coming up on the show, we meditate on the most-popular stories around the Internet, and we do it in The Most. And we talk about what may be one of the most popular new techniques in psychotherapy in the past decade, mindfulness meditation.

PESCA: This is the Bryant Park Project - I think that's hypnosis - what was I saying? Oh, yes. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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