a1 Department of Pediatrics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Ansari Nagar, New Delhi-110029, India
a2 Centre for International Health, University of Bergen, Norway
a3 Department of Epidemiology Research, Statens Serum Institut, Copenhagen, Denmark
Malnutrition increases morbidity and mortality and affects physical growth and development, some of these effects resulting from specific micronutrient deficiencies. While public health efforts must be targeted to improve dietary intakes in children through breast feeding and appropriate complementary feeding, there is a need for additional measures to increase the intake of certain micronutrients. Food-based approaches are regarded as the long-term strategy for improving nutrition, but for certain micronutrients, supplementation, be it to the general population or to high risk groups or as an adjunct to treatment must also be considered. Our understanding of the prevalence and consequences of iron, vitamin A and iodine deficiency in children and pregnant women has advanced considerably while there is still a need to generate more knowledge pertaining to many other micronutrients, including zinc, selenium and many of the B-vitamins. For iron and vitamin A, the challenge is to improve the delivery to target populations. For disease prevention and growth promotion, the need to deliver safe but effective amounts of micronutrients such as zinc to children and women of fertile age can be determined only after data on deficiency prevalence becomes available and the studies on mortality reduction following supplementation are completed. Individual or multiple micronutrients must be used as an adjunct to treatment of common infectious diseases and malnutrition only if the gains are substantial and the safety window sufficiently wide. The available data for zinc are promising with regard to the prevention of diarrhea and pneumonia. It should be emphasized that there must be no displacement of important treatment such as ORS in acute diarrhea by adjunct therapy such as zinc. Credible policy making requires description of not only the clinical effects but also the underlying biological mechanisms. As findings of experimental studies are not always feasible to extrapolate to humans, the biology of deficiency as well as excess of micronutrients in humans must continue to be investigated with vigour.