Poor nutrition: Hidden hunger stalks 98m children in sub-Saharan Africa

Thursday October 27 2022
Turkana, Kenya malnutrition screening

Residents of a village in Turkana, Kenya converge at a mobile clinic on October 11, 2022 to be screened for malnutrition amid biting drought. At least 98 million preschool-age children in sub-Saharan Africa are experiencing hidden hunger. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG


One in two people worldwide are likely experiencing hidden hunger — with at least 98 million preschool-age children in sub-Saharan Africa living it.

A study published in The Lancet Global Health, led by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (Gain) through the USAid Advancing Nutrition project, also found that two in three women between the ages 15 and 49 worldwide are deficient in at least one micronutrient.

“Alarmingly, in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, nine in 10 women are deficient, and this is largely due to poor diets that are high in starchy staple foods,” said the report.

Severe consequences

Even then, the global prevalence and number of people with micronutrient deficiencies is not well quantified and for the past 30 years scientists, programme planners, policymakers, and funders have used the large figure of two billion to estimate the number of people suffering from this hidden hunger.

Deficiencies in iron, vitamin A, zinc, folate, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and iodine can each have severe consequences, including increased susceptibility to infections, birth defects, blindness, reduced growth, cognitive impairment, decreased school performance and work productivity, and even death.


But micronutrient deficiencies leave no country untouched. Even in high-income countries like the US and the UK between one in three and one in two women are deficient.

Iron deficiency alone was found to be afflicting over 20 percent of women in both countries. In the UK folate and vitamin D deficiencies among women are also high at around 20 percent each.

Prevalence of deficiency

Among non-pregnant women of reproductive age, the estimated prevalence of deficiency in at least one of three core micronutrients was highest in sub-Saharan Africa at 80 per cent, and 62 per cent among preschool-age children.

Because data was not universally available, the study only included women and young children, leaving two-thirds of the global population — younger adolescents, older adolescent boys, men, and older adults. But in spite of data on these population groups to make a precise estimate worldwide, evidence suggests they face a relatively similar burden to that of women and children.

For men, the data on micronutrient deficiencies is nearly entirely missing. Limited research suggests that globally, prevalence of inadequate micronutrient intakes between sexes do not differ much.

Finally, there is limited data on micronutrient deficiencies among older adults globally, but a population-based study in Germany found that over half were deficient in vitamin D and over a quarter were deficient in vitamin B12, while iron and zinc deficiencies were each around 10 percent.

A study by Gain found that the most micronutrient dense foods include animal-source foods, dark green leafy vegetables, and pulses. Focus is also needed on fortification and supplementation to prevent or correct micronutrient deficiencies among vulnerable groups.