A household in Afghanistan is more likely to use iodized salt, which guards against goiters and reduced mental capacity, than is one in Cambodia. More Cambodian women are severely anemic than in neighboring Laos or Vietnam. And a Cambodian child is more likely to suffer from severe vitamin A deficiency, which weakens the immune system and can cause blindness, than a child in Mongolia, Morocco or Mozambique.
According to a global report released by the UN last week, Cambodia tops nearly all other Asian countries in vitamin and mineral deficiencies, an insidious form of hunger that can drain mental and physical health.
While supplements are relatively inexpensive, health officials say distribution difficulties, cultural attitudes towards food and a lack of enthusiasm among the donor community for nutrition issues has hampered food fortification success. “It’s not the cost of the vitamin A or the iron or the iodine which is the issue,” World Health Organization country representative Jim Tulloch said Monday. “It’s the cost of delivering them.”
Forty-two percent of Cambodian children suffer from severe vitamin A deficiency. One vitamin A capsule is effective for up to six months and can cost as little as $0.02, according to the UN report.
Iron deficiency affects nearly two-thirds of children under 5 and is treated with supplements that can cost $0.20 for a three-month supply.
Nutrition “is the government’s job, but it’s the job of the international community to assist the government,” said Mark Thomas, communication officer for Unicef, the UN children’s fund.
In 2000, a program supported by Unicef, the WHO and the NGO Helen Keller International distributed 1.5 million vitamin A capsules, according to the National Council for Nutrition.
However, a lack of knowledge about nutrition means that families are unlikely to seek out fortified foods on their own, said Koum Kamal, director of the National Maternal and Child Health Center. And compared to other health issues, child nutrition is “not widely supported” by NGO dollars, he said.