Leading nutritional experts yesterday called for new initiatives to tackle iron deficiency among young children after a conference heard that one in four infants over six months old is iron-deficient in some parts of the UK.
Recommendations include better community health education, improvements in weaning diets and the provision of iron-fortified foods or milks to vulnerable groups.
Studies presented at the conference, held at the Royal Society of Medicine in London, showed that iron deficiency is the UK's most common nutritional disorder. The symptoms can include decreased appetite, lethargy, delays in cognitive or motor development and behavioural problems.
Low iron intake among infants over six months of age and the use of cows' milk as a main drink for babies under one year were identified as two of the main causes of iron deficiency. A reduction in red meat consumption, increase in vegetarian eating and high food wastage among one to two year olds are also all thought to be linked to a higher incidence. In the UK, toddlers from ethnic and socially deprived groups are particularly vulnerable.
In response to the prevalence of iron deficiency, the UK government has asked the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) to examine the issue and present a report in 2004.
Over 100 health professionals and representatives of health organisations from across the country attended the 'National Conference on Iron Deficiency in Infancy and Childhood' yesterday, addressed by some of the leading nutritional experts in the UK.
Dr James Parker of Cow & Gate, the conference sponsors, said: "Tens of thousands of young children could be at risk of serious health problems, even though iron deficiency is easily preventable.
"It is clear that many toddlers are not getting a sufficient amount of iron from their diet. Although foods such as red meat and leafy vegetables are good sources of iron, studies have shown that cows' milk is low in iron and its early use is a major contributor to the high prevalence of iron deficiency in infancy. That is why the Government's own expert advisory group recommends that cows' milk should not be given to infants under 12 months."
He added that studies have shown iron-fortified foods or formula milks can play an important role in providing the recommended daily iron requirement for infants and preventing iron deficiency when used to complement breastfeeding and weaning in infants over six months of age. Iron-fortified milks are available in the UK for low income families through a government welfare scheme. The most easily absorbed type of iron is haem iron - found in meat and animal sources. Non-haem iron, which is found in vegetables and fortified cereals is a good source, but can be affected by other dietary factors. One pint of follow-on milk or other iron-fortified foods can provide the necessary daily requirement for infants over 6 months old.
Dr Ann Prentice, vice-chair of the SACN Working Group on Iron and chair of the conference, agreed that iron deficiency is a common problem in the UK. She said the SACN would look closely at the information and proposals from the conference and produce recommendations to prevent and tackle the problem.
Cow & Gate also yesterday released results of a survey of 700 British parents - nine out of ten were unaware that feeding cows' milk as the main drink to babies in the first year was one of the main risk factors associated with iron deficiency, and one in three had given cows' milk to their infants as a drink before 12 months of age. There was also a poor understanding of the causes and risks of iron deficiency - nearly half incorrectly thought that fish fingers were a good source of iron for toddlers and over 70 per cent were unaware of any longer-term health problems associated with iron deficiency.
Other studies have shown the scale of iron deficiency in British children. A national study found that 27 per cent of infants aged 8 months from a healthy mixed population had haemoglobin values below 110g/l . A 2002 study of three year olds in the South West showed that many had iron intakes less than the reference nutrient intake and studies among inner city infants and those from Asian communities have found incidence of iron deficiency ranging from 16-39 per cent.