A mother empties a packet of micronutrient powder into a meal of rice for her one-year-old daughter in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by ©UNICEF/UNI61858/Noorani

Twenty years ago, UNICEF asked pediatrician Dr. Stanley Zlotkin for a better way to treat and prevent childhood anemia. Infants and young children can’t swallow pills, so iron deficiency had previously been treated with iron syrup, which tastes metallic, stains teeth and is hard to measure. Zlotkin, now chief of the Centre for Global Child Health at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, came up with the idea of a revolutionary micronutrient powder, which he called “Sprinkles.”

Home fortification

Micronutrient powders are a daily dose of iron, as well as other minerals and vitamins, packaged in a small sachet. A parent simply tears it open and mixes its contents into the child’s semi-solid food. The powder doesn’t alter the food’s taste, texture or colour because the iron has been coated. When used correctly, it reduces the risk of anemia by 50 to 80 percent while also combatting other nutrient deficiencies. It’s also cheap: each sachet costs only two to three cents to produce.

Patent protection

After SickKids declined to jump on board, Zlotkin patented his own invention — though he never personally profited from it. For about a decade, he worked with the H.J. Heinz Company in Pittsburgh and five other manufacturers worldwide to produce Sprinkles. He managed to reach about four million children in 18 countries, but it wasn’t enough. Iron deficiency affects 293 million children globally. In 2007, he relinquished the patent outside of North America, putting his product in the public domain. “The bad news is that I can’t control the quality,” he says. “The good news is that there’s much wider production.”

International reach

Today, an estimated 500 million sachets are manufactured annually in dozens of countries. In 2013 alone, UNICEF and local governments delivered sachets to about 3.6 million children in 43 countries. Zlotkin works closely with UNICEF, and his research continues to help the global producers improve their product. He and other researchers recently discovered that adding macrominerals such as calcium, phosphorous and magnesium to the sachet can reduce the incidence of stunting in babies by 65 percent, giving them a better chance to grow and have healthy childhoods.  

Author's photo
Jocelyn Bell is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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