ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN (2 September 2004) - A high-level international conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan, today brings to a close the Asian Development Bank's (ADB) first regional project designed to reverse the alarming increase in mentally and cognitively impaired children in some Central Asian republics and Mongolia.
The project, Improving Nutrition of Poor Mothers and Children in Asian Countries in Transition, aimed to mitigate iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) and iron deficiency anemia (IDA) in the six participating countries, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The US$7.09 million project, which began in October 2001, was funded by a $6.85 million grant from the Japanese Government's and $240,000 from the participating governments.
"This successful project has laid a solid foundation for further efforts in this critical area of mother and child health," said M.E. Tusneem, Director General of ADB's East and Central Asia Department.
"The participating countries have made strong progress in increasing the availability of fortified salt and flour. Importantly, significant progress has also been made in the passage of new legislation on salt iodization, which will ensure these improvements are not reversed."
Both production and consumption of iodized salt has substantially increased in all participating countries. As of July 2004, availability of iodized salt in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia and Tajikistan had surpassed the project goal of 66% of domestically consumed salt. Uzbekistan has achieved about 85% of the project goal and is expected to achieve the goal by 2005. Azerbaijan achieved about 50% of the project goal.
While significant progress was also made in flour fortification, no country reached the project goal due to an unexpected shortage of flour in 2003.
The project, which was implemented in cooperation with the Kazakhstan Academy of Nutrition and UNICEF, promoted the production, distribution and sale of salt fortified with iodine and flour fortified with an iron-based premix. The project also included a large public awareness component designed to inform the public in each country of the importance of consuming sufficient quantities of iodine and iron micronutrients.
These micronutrients are essential for normal development of the body and brain. Yet when the project began, millions of mothers and children in these Asian countries in transition - and other parts of Asia - lacked micronutrients and were unaware of their importance.
In some regions, more than half the women of reproductive age and children suffered from iodine deficiency or anemia. Anemic women are more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth or give birth to infants with diminished cognitive skills.
Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the collapse of the system for producing and distributing iodized salt, there was a sharp rise in mentally retarded and physically stunted newborn babies in Central Asia as a result of IDD.
Where IDD is prevalent, children stand to lose 13 IQ points at birth that can never be recovered. Salt iodization is the best way to eliminate IDD, but less than one household in four in Central Asia and nearby countries had access to iodized salt. This was the lowest consumption rate in the world.
"Iodine deficiency, iron deficiency anemia, and folic acid deficiency are more common in Central Asia than many other comparable countries," says Rie Hiraoka, an ADB Senior Social Sectors Specialist.
Iodine deficiency has a negative impact on brain development of the fetus, while iron deficiency constrains the cognitive development of the young child and hampers mental and work performance of the older child and adult.
"These deficiencies have a major impact on the educability and productivity of large segments of the countries' populations, straining education and health systems, lowering productivity, and raising levels of sustained poverty," says Ms. Hiraoka.
To ensure continued progress in the fight against micronutrient deficiencies in Central Asia and Mongolia, ADB on 23 July 2004 approved a new $2 million grant for a regional food fortification program.
The grant, financed by the JFPR, from the Government of Japan, will be implemented in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
It will boost the supply of quality, fortified food by developing the capacity of the public and private sectors. The grant will develop and strengthen the implementation of food fortification legislation and programs in each country, improve governments' quality assurance system, and help governments develop regulatory frameworks and agreements to ease the trade of fortified food in the region.
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