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Given the rich and varied diet of many Americans, a daily vitamin is mostly an insurance policy.
But for up to one-third of the world's population, vitamin and mineral deficiencies are keeping children from reaching their full physical and intellectual potential, according to two reports by UNICEF, the non-profit Micronutrient Initiative and United Nations University.
Micronutrients are needed by the body in very small amounts and must be provided by diet. For 2 billion children worldwide, the lack of crucial micronutrients such as iron, vitamin A, iodine and zinc is damaging:
* Iron deficiency impairs intellectual development in young children.
* Vitamin A deficiency lowers immunity to disease in up to 40% of children under 5 in the developing world and leads to 1 million deaths a year.
* Iodine deficiency during pregnancy causes mental impairment in up to 20 million babies a year.
Zinc, it turns out, may be the world's most under-reported nutrition problem, the reports find. One-fifth of the world's population doesn't ingest enough zinc. In children this can cause stunted growth, diarrhea and pneumonia.
The good news is that supplement programs are cheap and easy to introduce worldwide -- at a cost of less than 5 cents per person per year, says Cutberto Garza, director of the Food and Nutrition program of the U.N. University. The university is a Japan-based research institution established by the United Nations.
What's required now is political will, Micronutrient Institute president Venkatesh Mannar says. ''These deficiencies are widespread, and they can be addressed with solutions we have on hand at very low cost,'' he says.
Says Garza: ''When a child needs iron or vitamin A or iodine, she needs it now. And if she doesn't get it, then you're going to pay for the rest of her life. But if you meet that need, the positive outcomes are absolutely glorious.''
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