Experts Discuss Malnutrition Challenges in Central Asia

News Release | 30 October 2007

MANILA, PHILIPPINES - About 100 participants from Central Asia and Mongolia have met over the last two days in Almaty to discuss one of the most pressing health challenges facing the region in the past decade - micronutrient deficiencies.

"Huge gains have been made in recent years in combating the problem, but many challenges remain, especially in getting governments to mandate that flour should be fortified with iron, folic acid, and other essential vitamins," said Ms. Rie Hiraoka, Senior Social Sector Specialist with the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Ms. Hiraoka was speaking at the third Almaty Forum on 29-30 October, attended by representatives of governments, private food industries, civil society, and international organizations.

ADB has been promoting food fortification as the most cost effective way to combat micronutrient deficiencies, which is often touted as "hidden hunger." and combating micronutrient deficiencies in Central Asia since 2001. It has invested $8.8 million in projects in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction has been the main financier.

One of the main achievements has been that salt iodization has been universalized, or close to universalized, in all participating countries, and iodine deficiency disorders are on the decline. In 2000, only 25% of the populations, on average, had access to iodized salt. Iodine deficiency can cause stillbirths, spontaneous abortions and premature deaths, stunted growth and blunted intelligence.

Iron-deficiency anemia is another cause of malnutrition that is common in the region. Anemia causes the deaths of pregnant women and constrains the cognitive development of children. The easiest way to combat the problem is to add iron to a staple food as it is being produced. In Central Asia, that staple is wheat flour and progress has been made in getting many millers to begin adding iron to their products. The sentinel study conducted under the projects has shown that prevalence of iron deficiency anemia has been reduced among the sample population who regularly consumed fortified flour.

The participating country delegations adopted the 2007 Almaty Forum declaration, which calls for sustained efforts to maintain universal salt iodization and expand flour fortification in the region.