Vitamin B12 deficiency in infants leads to poor motor development and anemia, according to a Burkinabé study conducted by the University of Copenhagen and Médecins Sans Frontières. B12 deficiency is a huge but neglected problem, and the food aid we are currently providing is not helping. According to the researchers, the problem calls for new solutions.
In Denmark, cases of poor psychomotor development are regularly seen in young children brought up on vegan diets, although such outcomes can be prevented with daily vitamin B12 supplements. But for children in low-income countries, the odds of meeting their vitamin B12 needs are much worse. This is reflected in widespread B12 deficiency among young children in Burkina Faso, according to a study by the University of Copenhagen conducted in collaboration with Médecins Sans Frontières. The results were published in the journal Medicine from Plos.
A lack of vitamin B12 not only leads to anemia, it can also damage the nervous system. And for young children, B12 is crucial for brain development.
“Among the many children who participated in our study, we found a strong correlation between vitamin B12 deficiency and poor motor development and anemia,” says Henrik Friis, first author of the study and professor in the Department of nutrition, exercise from the University of Copenhagen. and Sports.
For many years, the focus has been on vitamin A, zinc and iron deficiencies as they relate to malnutrition across the world, while research on vitamin B12 deficiency is sparse.
“Vitamin B12 deficiency is one of the most overlooked issues when it comes to malnutrition. And sadly, we can see that the food aid we provide today is not up to the task,” says Henrik Friis, who worked in the field of nutrition and health. in low-income countries for many years.
More than 1,000 acutely malnourished children aged 6 to 23 months participated in the study. Children’s vitamin B12 levels were measured before and after three months of daily food rations containing the recommended vitamin B12 content. At the start of the study, two-thirds of the children had low or marginal levels of vitamin B12.
Short-term food aid does not replenish B12 reserves
“During the period the children received food relief, their B12 levels rose, before dropping significantly once we stopped the program. This, while a typical diet relief program only lasts four weeks,” explains Henrik Friis.
Even after three months of relief food, a third of the children continued to have low or marginal vitamin B12 stores. The unfortunate explanation is that there is a cap on how much B12 can be absorbed.
“A child’s gut can only absorb 1 microgram of B12 per meal. So if a child is missing 500 micrograms, it will take much longer than the few weeks they will have access to food aid from emergency”, explains Vibeke Brix Christensen, pediatrician. and medical advisor to Médecins Sans Frontières and co-author of the study.
“Furthermore, longer-term relief programs are unrealistic as aid organizations try to reduce the length of treatment regimens in an effort to be able to serve more children for the same amount of money. “, continues Vibeke Brix Christensen. .
She points out that it might make a difference to spread the needed amount of vitamin B12 over multiple meals, which would likely allow children to get the same amount of vitamin B12 each time. But the problem is that if a widespread B12 deficiency appears in children in low-income countries, it is difficult to remedy.
New solutions needed on the table
Preventing vitamin B12 deficiency would be the best course of action. Unfortunately, sustainable solutions are not yet readily available according to Professor Friis.
Because our bodies cannot produce B12 on their own, we must obtain it through animal products or synthetic supplements. However, in many low-income countries, access to animal source foods is incredibly difficult for the general population. One wonders if tablets or fortified foods are the way to prevention?
“Maybe, but the problem in low-income countries is lack of resources and weak health systems. Distributing tablets to millions and millions of people is not cost-effective. And to fortify foods with B12, it needs to be added to foods that are accessible to the poor. This requires industrial expansion, as many people currently only eat what they can produce themselves. Moreover, it requires legislation that is not based on voluntary participation”, says Henrik Friis, who has more confidence in other types of solutions:
“Individual households could be encouraged to raise chickens and perhaps goats, which a mother could manage and use to provide access to animal-source foods. Finally, work needs to be done to develop fermented products with B12-producing bacteria – something that does not yet exist, but which researchers and companies are already working towards,” concludes Henrik Friis.
Researchers are in dialogue with UNICEF’s Supply Division, based in Copenhagen, on how to improve products to treat moderate to acute malnutrition.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency can be passed from mother to child. If a mother is deficient in B12, her child will also be born deficient in B12, before receiving breast milk containing too little B12. A child’s B12 deficiency can affect the formation and regeneration of their intestinal cells. Consequently, the child’s ability to absorb vitamin B12 and other vital nutrients will be reduced. Thus, a vitamin B12 deficiency contributes to the development of malnutrition.
ABOUT ACUTE MALNUTRITION
- Since 2010, the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports (NEXS) at the University of Copenhagen has been working with WHO and UNICEF, among others, with a focus on improving the emergency food aid used to combat child malnutrition.
- According to UNICEF, approximately 200 million children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition worldwide. Malnutrition contributes to the death of three million children each year.
- Acute malnutrition in children is characterized by children who are too thin for their height. Globally, approximately 50 million children are estimated to suffer from acute malnutrition, with two-thirds suffering from moderate malnutrition and the remaining third from severe acute malnutrition.
- Today, only around 20% of severely malnourished children receive emergency food aid.
ABOUT THE STUDY
- 1,609 children from Burkina Faso suffering from moderate to acute malnutrition participated in the study. The researchers were able to measure serum cobalamin levels in 1,192 of these children.
- The children received three different types of emergency food rations, all of which met WHO standards.
- The study is a reanalysis of data collected in Burkina Faso as part of the TREATFOOD research project.