Zinc Industry's CSR Initiative Helps Tackles Zinc Deficiency

Zinc deficiency affects two billion people globally and contributes to the deaths of 450,000 children every year. Yet, just like other micronutrient deficiencies, it is often an invisible illness, and consequently as a public health issue it receives little attention. Zinc is an essential micronutrient for human health, helping to fight off illness, like malaria and diarrhoea, and is vital to children's cognitive development and learning.  When diets do not contain sufficient amounts of zinc, the consequences include lower birth weight, a decrease in cognitive ability and increased susceptibility to other diseases.

As a major contributor to over 800,000 deaths each year, what is equally as shocking is that the majority of these deaths are easily preventable with a simple zinc supplement. UNICEF is one of the many humanitarian organisations that are providing zinc and other micronutrient supplements to children in developing countries. Just a few extra milligrams of zinc every day can be the difference between life and death.

Between 2006 and 2008, UNICEF procurement of zinc tablets increased from 20 million to more than 150 million. But this is only a fraction of what is needed to treat affected children worldwide.  In Peru, for instance, 41.6% of the population is at risk of zinc deficiency and yet in some areas only 4% of the demand for supplements is being met.

A partnership with the International Zinc Association is proving a success for scaling up UNICEF’s efforts to reach more children. Earlier this year, the zinc industry launched an initiative called Zinc Saves Kids, that helps fund UNICEF’s zinc supplementation programmes in Nepal and Peru. Getting the zinc industry involved offers a natural partnership; taking something that is so useful in the lives of industrialised countries and making a difference to the lives of disadvantaged children in developing countries.  What is more, the actual amount of zinc actually needed to treat zinc deficiency is only about 150 tonnes of zinc compared to the 12 million tonnes that exist globally.

Progress is being made. In Peru, with the support of the government, UNICEF’s zinc supplement programmes helped reduced the rate of child mortality from 57% in 1992 to 20% in 2009.

Zinc supplements offer a quick formula for success, and also an inexpensive one. Zinc supplements cost $1 to $4 per person every year. For cases of diarrhoea, for which zinc has proven an effective remedy, a 14-day zinc supplement programme costs only $0.50. Diarrhoea causes 17% of all under-5 deaths, accounting for one million deaths every year.  Zinc deficiency is implicated in nearly half of those. This one-off fee of $0.50 for curing diarrhoea has longer-term benefits since zinc treatment has proven a preventative from subsequent episodes, in countries where children commonly suffer 3 to 5 bouts a year. So for those families who once had to pay frequent medical costs – taking the child to hospital, purchasing medication, getting follow-up care - putting a stop to diarrhoea makes available the limited money households do have for education, food and household necessities.

The economic savings do not stop at the household level: more money at the individual level contributes to the wealth of the whole community.  At the collective level it is visible what it means to have individuals that are productive and healthy, and all due to a small micronutrient that has been added to their diet.

Awareness of zinc deficiency and the value of zinc supplements are gaining traction as a development priority action for countries today. At the Clinton Global Initiative in 2009, former US President Bill Clinton identified zinc supplementation as a key strategy in tackling global health issues. Since 2004, the World Health Organisation and UNICEF have recommended zinc supplements for the management of diarrhoea.  Since then, about 50 governments have changed their child health policies to include zinc for diarrhoea management. It has also been calculated by the Copenhagen Consensus, a group of world-leading economists including five Nobel Laureates, that for every $1 invested in zinc interventions, offers a return of $17. There are few other public health interventions that can offer a community so much, for such a small price.