Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

International and Public Health Nutrition Group Symposium on ‘Achieving a balanced diet in the developing world: strategies to meet micronutrient needs’

Meeting the challenges of micronutrient deficiencies in emergency-affected populations

Z. Weise Prinzoa1 c1 and B. de Benoista1

a1 Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, World Health Organization, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland


Micronutrient deficiencies occur frequently in refugee and displaced populations. These deficiency diseases include, in addition to the most common Fe and vitamin A deficiencies, scurvy (vitamin C deficiency), pellagra (niacin and/or tryptophan deficiency) and beriberi (thiamin deficiency), which are not seen frequently in non-emergency-affected populations. The main causes of the outbreaks have been inadequate food rations given to populations dependent on food aid. There is no universal solution to the problem of micronutrient deficiencies, and not all interventions to prevent the deficiency diseases are feasible in every emergency setting. The preferred way of preventing these micronutrient deficiencies would be by securing dietary diversification through the provision of vegetables, fruit and pulses, which may not be a feasible strategy, especially in the initial phase of a relief operation. The one basic emergency strategy has been to include a fortified blended cereal in the ration of all food-aid-dependent populations (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees/World Food Programme, 1997). In situations where the emergency-affected population has access to markets, recommendations have been to increase the general ration to encourage the sale and/or barter of a portion of the ration in exchange for locally-available fruit and vegetables (World Health Organization, 1999a, b, 2000). Promotion of home gardens as well as promotion of local trading are recommended longer-term options aiming at the self-sufficiency of emergency-affected households. The provision of fortified blended foods in the general ration has successfully prevented and controlled micronutrient deficiencies in various emergency settings. However, the strategy of relying only on fortified blended foods to prevent micronutrient deficiencies should be reviewed in the light of recurring evidence that provision of adequate supplies of these foods is often problematic. Donor policies on the bartering or exchange of food aid should also be clarified. Furthermore, the establishment of micronutrient surveillance systems, including standardized micronutrient deficiency diagnostic criteria, are vital for the control of micronutrient deficiency diseases.


c1 Dr Zita Weise Prinzo, fax +41 22 7914156, email