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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Malnutrition: A Major Cause of the Global Disease Burden

By Julia Bird

Eleanor Roosevelt once said “it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness”, and there is perhaps no better place to do this than in the area of healthcare. Past estimates of the global burden of disease have been limited by poor data.  Even so, our capacity to produce data is ever-expanding, and this also includes information on health-related outcomes. For example, the website Google Flu Trends uses increases in certain search terms to be able to predict influenza. The National Institutes of Health in the US recently started the Big Data to Knowledge initiative to help the biochemical community make better use of large, complex datasets.

The Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 was developed to improve on prior estimates of international rates of disability and death. It relies on data found in the Global Health Data Exchange, created after the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 as a central repository for public health data sources. The main results were reported yesterday in the Lancet in the publication Global, regional, and national incidence, prevalence, and years lived with disability for 301 acute and chronic diseases and injuries in 188 countries, 1990–2013. The report contains essential information on the effect of disease on global quality of life over two decades.

And how much impact did nutrition have on disease burden in the world? The good news is that overall, the size and impact of the main nutritional deficiencies (iron, iodine, vitamin A, and protein-energy malnutrition) decreased since 1990. The bad news is that millions of people are still seriously affected by these entirely preventable conditions. Some facts from the report that relate to nutrition follow.

Iron deficiency anemia made up 66% of all anemias (others include genetic conditions, maternal hemorrhage and infectious diseases that cause anemia), and there were roughly 1,208,360,100 cases worldwide. Iron deficiency anemia was the third leading cause of global years lived with disability (YLD).

Iodine deficiency dropped 11% since 1990, but still affects 115,602,000 people. Although salt iodization campaigns have reduced the number of countries that have high rates of iodine deficiency over the past decades, 54 countries are still classified as iodine deficient.

There were 20,756,200 cases of protein-energy malnutrition in 2013. This is normally a result of severe food insecurity, which can be chronic or occur over a short period of time.

Vitamin A deficiency affected 3,372,000 people and is the 8th most common cause of vision impairment.

In addition, nutrition affects prevalence and severity of many other conditions. Examples include rates of osteoporosis and falls (vitamin D), neural tube defects (folic acid), measles (vitamin A), cardiovascular disease and cancer (obesity).

These new data make use of improvements in our data collection systems. By seeing what is going on in the world, we can provide solutions to the areas that they are most needed. The Global Health Data Exchange is a wonderful resource for public health professionals to explore health-related data, helping us to bring a light to the global burden of disease.


Main citation:

Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 Collaborators. Global, regional, and national incidence, prevalence, and years lived with disability for 301 acute and chronic diseases and injuries in 188 countries, 1990–2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. The Lancet. Published online 07 June 2015


Global Health Data Exchange