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Understanding Anemia: A Nutrition Deficiency Challenge

Ensuring balanced nutrition reaches households and to the plates of 130 crore Indians is the first step towards the making of a healthier India.

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Anemia is possibly single biggest national nutritional challenge in India. It is more prevalent in women and children and that presents a constantly recurring challenge since it passes on from one generation to the next. Around 53% of women in the age group of 15-49 years and 58.6% of children in the age group of 6-59 months are anemic as per the latest National Family Health Survey. In comparison, 22.7% of men in the age group of 15-49 years are anemic, which isn’t a small figure either.  To counter anemia and other nutrition deficiency related ailments, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare with its visionary National Nutrition Strategy is working relentlessly to achieve Kuposhan Mukt Bharat by 2022.  

Many private enterprises, not-for-profit groups, and the civil society members have also invested much for the cause. However, improving public understanding of the disease is essential to help these combined efforts impact the undernourished India.

Causes and Symptoms
Anemia, simply put, is often a result of low levels of healthy red-blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to all parts of our body and are essential for growth, development, and physiological needs. Most victims of the disease are either unaware about the disease and don’t recognize symptoms or they are not sensitive enough to acknowledge the disease. Some of the common symptoms include dizziness, light-headedness, fast or unusual heartbeat, headache, pain in bones, chest, belly and joints, growth and development challenges in children, fatigue, and cold hands and feet.  

Most commonly marked by blood loss, the disease is also caused by decreased or faulty red blood cell production or destruction of red blood cells, which may be due to an underlying disease or condition. Blood loss due to menstruation and internal bleeding from ulcers, cancer, hemorrhoids, and so on, are some of the causative factors for anemia. Nutritional deficiency, majorly iron, folate, vitamin B12 is one of the major causes of anemia. Other nutrients such as some of the other vitamins, copper, and zinc also contribute to the condition.  

The Scenario in India
In India, women’s nutritional needs are high especially in the age group of 15-49 years as their bodies undergo radical change due to pregnancy and childbirth as well as due to blood loss during menstruation. Also, social structures and gender bias are important factors why women’s health takes a backseat in the country. Socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, and lack of awareness and education add to the inaccessibility to healthcare, and delays timely diagnosis and treatment.
Children from birth to adolescence have high nutritional needs due to rapid biological growth and development.  Other than socioeconomic factors and unavailability of balanced nutrient-rich diet, mother’s health during pregnancy and afterwards contribute much to the disease prevalence amongst infants. The prevalence of other diseases, such as parasitic infections, and ill-health in general fueled by poor nutrition also make children anemic. The level of vitamin A intake amongst children is also a matter of major concern. In well-to-do families, nutritional imbalance and lack of micronutrients increases the risk of the disease.  

Steps to prevention
Public awareness and mass sensitization are the first steps to resolve the health crisis. Therefore, it is essential to spread awareness on symptoms of the disease. At the same time, it is pivotal to promote the importance of accessing institutionalized healthcare facilities and getting treated from qualified doctors. Aggressive awareness against self-medication or consultation of quacks is utmost needed, as both factors lead to adverse health effects.  

The other aspects that need intense focus are prevention and management of the disease by adding nutrients either through diet or supplements.  Many from the underserved sections of the society don’t have access to proper nutrition even if they are made aware of the condition. Dietary changes would include adding food options that are rich in iron, vitamin A, B12, folate and other micronutrients to the table. Green vegetables, nuts and seeds, dairy products such as milk and yogurt, beans and pulses, some varieties of fish like salmon, and citrus fruits should be included in our daily diet.  

Adding nutrient fortified cereals and supplements is one of most critical methods to effectively tackle the challenge. There are many solutions available in the market today including home fortification. While major government and private initiatives need to find ways and means to make nutrient fortified products accessible to less fortunate residents of our metros, tier 1 and 2 cities, and villages, the well-off should make a conscious effort to include these products a part of the regular diet.  

History can repeat itself in a good way
India can take inspiration from its own success story. Goiter is history today but once it was an important healthcare concern, which was effectively tackled with fortifying iodine in salt. Similarly, making iron and other nutrient fortified food products and supplements accessible to the poorest of the poor would be the mega step to tackle increasing burden of the disease. Ensuring balanced nutrition reaches households and to the plates of 130 Cr Indians is the first step towards the making of a healthier India.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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anemia Anemia Monitoring System

Alok Kohli

The author is Business Director, DSM Nutritional Products, India

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