Who am I?

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I am not religious, but I don't mind calling myself spiritual. Religion, I believe, has, over the millennia, been used as a prop to perpetrate a lot of human suffering. Faith is what matters. I don't believe in the definition of God as a creator. According to me, my God resides within me. Some call it conscience, some call it the sub-conscious, some call it the soul. I don't mind calling it God. So by definition I am not an atheist or an agnostic, but by essence, I may as well be. My God does not reside in a temple, church, mosque or gurudwara. It is right here, within me.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Nutrition: Thought for Food Should be the Government's Food for Thought

Copenhagen Consensus, a project headed by a panel of leading economists, seeks to offer solutions to complicated social-economic problems. In May 2008, the Copenhagen Consensus panel considered 30 options and ranked the provision for micronutrients as the world’s best investment for development. The underlying reasons are abound.

I will start off with some facts first. Approximately one-third of all children in the developing countries under the age of five are Vitamin-A deficient. In India, 330,000 children die each year from Vitamin-A deficiency. Those that survive infancy may have very low immunity later on in life, and their bodies may be weak, prone to disease. Some of them may have congenital defects which might surface later on in life, while others may become blind at birth. In short, chances of them going very far in school are abysmally slim. And we should not forget the fact that most of these undernourished children are from very poor families.

Iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy results in 115,000 deaths throughout the world each year, accounting for one fifth of total maternal deaths. It is a profoundly sad paradox that the country that takes pride in calling itself the next big superpower has the worst Vitamin-A rates in the world in children below the age of 5 years - 57% of the children in India are deficient in Vitamin A while the deficiency percentage for iron is 69%. 33% children in India suffer from iodine deficiency. The most insidious aspect of this is that the cost to minimize this mass-deficiency is minimal. It is the political will that is missing. And it is a shame that this fact itself does not make most of the highly talked-of Indian middle class sit up and take notice, let alone be bewildered by the facts. It is too engrossed in its apathetic attitude towards the pathetic plight of the people of their own country.

If India wants to address the problem of the ever widening gap between those who can afford and those who cannot, leaving behind its children and women is not justified by any yardstick. The government has to work hand in hand with non-profit organizations that are always ready to share their reach and resources for a noble cause. One such organization is the Micronutrient Initiative, based in Ottawa, under the aegis of the Canadian government. The organization has been active in many countries and it has delivered tremendous results. Micronutrient Initiative is a live example of how effective and affordable vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients can be. Vitamin A doses cost about 2 cents each and only 2 annual doses per child are required. Cost of iodization of salt is 5 cents per person per year. Micronutrient Initiative has developed a nutri-candy that fulfils most of the daily requirements of vitamins A, C and iron. The tests of this candy in Haryana and West Bengal have shown a 15% reduction in anemia and deficiencies in Vitamin A. Due to encouraging support of the Canadian establishment, between 1993 and 2007, Micronutrient Initiative has played a huge role in reducing the number of countries with iodine deficiency disorders as a major public health concern from 110 to 47. And there is a bright scope in the future. For example, approximately, 1.5 million children in the world die every year due to diarrhea, most of whom belong to India. Providing those children with zinc supplements, which bolsters the immune system, could reduce the number of deaths by as many as 20%. And the cost of zinc supplements per person per year is just one dollar. A puny amount, considering the huge amounts of money siphoned off by the Indian bureaucrats every year.

The following are the cost effective solutions offered by Micronutrient Initiative that are ready to be scaled up with help from the governments:
I. Fortification
- Fortifying flour and other staple crops with Vitamin A, folic acid, iron and zinc has been an effective means of reducing anemia and birth defects.
- Salt iodization reduces goiter and improves cognitive development. In communities where iodine intake is sufficient, average IQ is shown to be on average 13 points higher than in iodine-deficient communities.
II. Supplementation
- Where a population is at risk of Vitamin A deficiency, providing young children with Vitamin A supplementation every six months reduces mortality by an average of 23%.
- Zinc supplementation, given with oral rehydration therapy, can reduce the duration and severity of acute diarrhea.

Iron Intensification Program by the Government of Nepal, with the help of Micronutrient Initiative, has drastically reduced anemia rates in women since its inception in Nepal. If India hopes to tap the huge skilled human capital that will be at its beck and call in a few years from now, it has to learn something from our neighbour country and Canada, and wake up from its slumber of lethargy and indifference to do the needful.

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