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Adding Iron to the World’s Diet

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

Billions of people worldwide suffer from iron deficiency anemia. Children in developing countries are at special risk for this condition, which affects their physical and mental development. Experts say the world's most common nutritional disorder is preventable.

The statistics are staggering. More than half the world's population may have lowered levels of iron and other micronutrients the body needs for good health. Of this group, more than two billion people, approximately 30 percent of the earth's population, suffer from severely reduced levels of iron, a condition called called anemia.

The body needs iron to manufacture hemoglobin, the protein inside red blood cells that carries oxygen to tissue throughout the body. When iron levels drop and hemoglobin production falls, the body's natural defenses are weakened and the medical consequences can be serious.

In developed countries, this nutritional disorder affects millions of people, but typically at more modest stages, according to Dennis Thiele, professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University Medical Center. However, in developing countries, the condition is far more widespread and more devastating. The World Health Organization reports that nine out of 10 anemia sufferers live in developing countries.

"It's most acute in developing countries, among people with a poor diet that would be deficient in iron and other trace elements, such as copper, that influence the acquisition of iron. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable."

Iron deficiency anemia lowers the body's resistance to disease and diminishes body and brain functions. It can result in premature births, low birth weight, impaired physical and cognitive development, elevated risk for infections, and premature death.

Thiele, a member of the Sarah W. Stedman Nutrition and Metabolism Center at Duke, points to two principle factors that contribute to iron deficiency anemia.

"Iron deficiency can be determined genetically. That can be partially overcome with iron supplements. Then of course there is the iron deficiency mediated by a diet that's poor in iron. Certainly that can be overcome with iron supplementation."

Unfortunately, says Thiele, there have been chronic difficulties with access to supplements in many parts of the world. In addition to cost factors and distribution problems, compliance rates for iron supplementation have remained relatively low, particularly among children.

According to Thiele, finding new, more effective ways of adding iron and other micronutrients to the diet of adults and children in developing countries is essential to overcoming the world's growing anemia epidemic.

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