Almost 50% of under ve years-olds in Colombia suer from zinc deciency, says a new study that highlights the issue as a “major public health problem” in the country.

Researchers from the Universidad del Rosario sede Quinta de Mutis in Bogota called for food security and nutritional support programs to provide a proactive and important measure to tackle these low zinc levels in children in Colombia.

Led by Angela Maria Pinzón-Rondón, the scientists conducted a cross-sectional study by using data from the Colombian National Nutrition Survey in 2010, a population-based analysis focusing on Colombia.

The joint eorts of Colombian governmental and non-governmental organizations were backed by the United Nation’s World Food Program and the Pan-American Health Organization. The survey was then applied to a nationally representative sample of 50,670 urban and rural households, which represented over 99% of the population in Colombia.

The study explored zinc deciency in relation to wealth and food security, along with the impact of nutritional support programs, in a total of 4275 children aged between 12 and 59 months.

The importance of zinc

“Zinc plays a vital role in the immune, gastrointestinal, respiratory and nervous systems,” the study stated. As an essential trace element, zinc is present in more than 400 enzymatic reactions and 2000 proteins in the body.

A critical element in gene expression, protein synthesis, cell development and replication, zinc deciency in children and adolescents may lead to a number of growth and developmental concerns. Growth retardation, stunting, developmental delays, impaired overall immune function and multiple infections such as respiratory, diarrhea and malaria, can occur as a result of low levels of zinc.

Approximately 4% of the burden of disease in children under ve years of age around the world is associated with zinc deciency. In addition, zinc supplementation has been found to lower childhood morbidity and mortality.

Nutrition in Colombia

Poverty and nutritional insecurity are adverse conditions that increase the risk of suering zinc deciency. The popularity and prevalence of plant-based diets have been found to be “high in dietary ber and phytic acid, and poor in animal protein”, and therefore, may limit zinc’s bioavailability and contribute to dietary inadequacy.

In Colombia, a considerable proportion of children live in low-income households, where food insecurity and nutritional deciencies are present. A signicant percentage of children, therefore, live in an environment that contributes to nutritional issues such as zinc deciency.

To tackle and overcome nutritional problems, the Colombian government has set up numerous subsidized nutritional support programs for children, with the support of the Colombian Institute of Family Wealthier.

Zinc deciency has been identied as a widespread problem in developing countries, with children more likely to experience low levels compared to adults due to their higher zinc demand. In Colombia, the country’s prevalence of zinc deciency in children more than doubled from 20% in 2005 to 43.3% in 2010.

The study aimed to understand the role of nutritional support programs on zinc deciency in Colombian under-ve children, along with considering their wealth and food security.

With a zinc deciency prevalence of 49% in Colombian children under-ve, the study conrms that zinc deciency is a “major public health problem in this population”.

Reducing food insecurity and improving nutritional programs

Throughout the region, there are also nutritional programs aimed at children living in low socioeconomic backgrounds. Bienestarina, a nutritional supplement, is an element of the national and regional program, which provides 50% of the zinc daily recommended intake of 1.5 mgs for children under five.

“Considering the evidence that has been provided, it is unsettling that such a large gap exists between the children who can access nutritional programs (22%) and those who are food insecure (71%),” the study reveals.

In total, the study revealed that 61.6% of the poorest population in Colombia have access to subsidy programs, suggesting that “eorts should be made to strengthen and expand the existing policies and to implement new ones that focus on these three areas to eectively reduce the zinc deciency”.

Poverty and food security are identied as the determinants of zinc deciency in Colombia in this study, and so, subsidized nutritional support programs can help to reduce zinc deciency.

Zinc deficiency

Ethnicity and household location lose statistical signicance when wealth and food security are prevalent. Therefore, the study suggests that a possible insight may be that indigenous and rural Colombian populations are more likely to be underprivileged. In addition, poverty and food insecurity may be increasing the risk of dietary zinc inadequacy.

The study also reveals that providing nutritional support through structured programs, particularly in areas with high poverty and food insecurity levels, may be an eective measure. To do so, policymaking eorts should aim to strengthen and support programs, while simultaneously, promoting universal access to health services and bolster nutritional security in the pediatric population.

“Nutritional programs may be a good alternative against zinc deciency if they focus appropriately on the needs of children according to their wealth and food security,” the study revealed.