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The Global Iron-Deficiency Crisis

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Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Nearly every country on Earth agreed to the utopian dream of ending poverty and hunger. It was as if a group of earnest 16-year-olds suddenly ran the world. This seemed an entirely good thing.

Goal 5 was to improve maternal health, which included reducing anemia in women of reproductive age. In 2015, when we had failed to achieve the eight MDGs, the U.N. doubled down by creating 17 Sustainable Development Goals. One of the targets, again, was to reduce anemia in women. Again, we are failing. By 2020, not a single country was on target to achieve that goal.

Today, the World Health Organization estimates that 40 percent of pregnant women on Earth are anemic and 42 percent of children under the age of five. One third of all women of reproductive age are anemic. Men, of course, can also suffer from anemia. And iron deficiency is not just confined to poor countries; the CDC estimates that 15 percent of pregnant women and toddlers in America have iron levels below the recommended level.

We know exactly what to do. In 2020, BMC Medicine published a meta-analysis of work being done in 129 countries. The authors concluded that scaling up three interventions would dramatically reduce anemia in women by 2030. Those interventions are treating malaria in pregnant women, giving iron and folic acid supplements to all women of reproductive age, and giving micronutrient supplements to pregnant women. The cost would be roughly US $17 billion over the next nine years.

Every day, we take iron into our bodies and turn this metal into who we are: thought, action, memories, stories. We turn iron into love. That’s remarkable. As with any long-term relationship, however, this one requires work. We simply cannot continue to take iron for granted. We need to fully commit.

This is an opinion and analysis article.


    Sharman Apt Russell is a professor emeritus in humanities at Western New Mexico University and an associate on the faculty of Antioch University. She is the author of Diary of a Citizen Scientist (winner of the 2016 John Burroughs Medal), Knocking on Heaven’s Door (winner of the Arizona Authors Association Award) and Teresa of the New World (winner of the Arizona Authors Association Award). She lives in New Mexico. She is the author of the recently published Within our Grasp, from Pantheon Books.

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