B12 deficiency harms kids. Food aid isn’t helping

"A child's gut can only absorb 1 microgram of B12 per meal. So, if a child is lacking 500 micrograms, it will take much longer than the few weeks that they have access to emergency food relief," explains Vibeke Brix Christensen. (Credit: Getty Images)

Vitamin B12 deficiency in infants leads to poor motor development and anemia, according to a study from Burkina Faso.

B12 deficiency is an enormous yet overlooked problem and the current food relief is not helping. According to the researchers, the problem calls for new solutions.

In Denmark, cases of poor psychomotor development are regularly seen in young children raised on vegan diets, though daily B12 supplements can prevent this. For children in low-income countries, however, the chances of ever meeting vitamin B12 requirements are far worse. The new results, from a reanalysis of data collected in Burkina Faso under the research project TREATFOOD, appear in PLOS Medicine.

A lack of vitamin B12 doesn’t just potentially lead to anemia, it can also damage the nervous system. And for young children, B12 is crucial for brain development.

B12 deficiency can be transmitted from mother to child. If a mother is B12 deficient, her child will be born B12 deficient as well, before receiving breast milk with too little B12 in it. A child’s B12 deficiency can affect the formation and regeneration of their intestinal cells. Consequently, the child’s capacity to absorb B12 and other vital nutrients will be reduced. In this way, B12 deficiency contributes to the development of malnutrition.

“Among the many children who participated in our study, we found a strong correlation between vitamin B12 deficiency and poor motor development and anemia,” says Henrik Friis, first author of the study and a professor at the University of Copenhagen’s department of nutrition, exercise, and sports.

For many years, there has been a focus on vitamin A, zinc, and iron deficiencies when it comes to malnutrition around the globe, whereas there is a paucity of research on B12 deficiency.

“B12 deficiency is one of the most overlooked problems out there when it comes to malnutrition. And unfortunately, we can see that the food relief we provide today is not up to the task,” says Friis.

Over 1,000 children with acute malnutrition aged 6-23 months participated in the study. The children’s B12 levels were measured both before and after three months of daily food relief rations containing the recommended B12 content. When the study began, two-thirds of the children had either low or marginal levels of B12.

“During the period when children were provided with food relief, their B12 levels increased, before decreasing considerably once we stopped the program. Despite provisioning them with food relief for three months, their stores remained far from topped up. This, when a typical food relief program only runs for four weeks,” says Friis.

Even after three months of food relief, one third of the children continued to have low or marginal levels of B12 stored. The unfortunate explanation is that there is a cap on how much B12 can be absorbed.

“A child’s gut can only absorb 1 microgram of B12 per meal. So, if a child is lacking 500 micrograms, it will take much longer than the few weeks that they have access to emergency food relief,” explains Vibeke Brix Christensen, a pediatrician and medical advisor to Médecins Sans Frontières and coauthor of the study.

“Furthermore, longer-term relief programs aren’t realistic, as humanitarian organizations are trying to reduce the duration of treatment regimens with the aim of being able to serve a larger number of children for the same amount of money,” continues Christensen.

She points out that it might make a difference to divide the necessary amount of vitamin B12 across several meals, which would probably allow children to absorb the same amount of B12 each time. But the problem is that if widespread B12 deficiency appears among children in low-income countries, it is difficult to do anything about it.

Preventing B12 deficiency would be the best course of action. Unfortunately, lasting solutions have yet to become readily available, according to Friis.

Because our bodies cannot produce B12 on their own, we need to have it supplied to us through animal-based products or synthetic supplements. However, in many low-income countries, access to animal-based foods is incredibly difficult for the general population. One might wonder, are tablets or fortified food the way to prevention?

“Possibly, but the problem in low-income countries is poorly resourced and weak health care systems. Handing out tablets to millions and millions of people is not cost-effective. And to enrich foods with B12, it must be added to foodstuffs that are accessible to the poor. This requires industrial expansion, as many people currently eat only what they can produce themselves. Furthermore, it requires legislation that it is not based on voluntary participation,” says Friis, who has greater faith in other types of solutions:

“Individual households could be incentivized to keep chickens and perhaps goats, which a mother could manage and use to provide access to animal-based foodstuffs. Finally, work needs to be done to develop fermented products with B12 producing bacteria—something that doesn’t yet exist, but towards which researchers and companies are already working.”

The researchers are in dialogue with UNICEF’s Supply Division, based in Copenhagen, about how products to treat moderate to acute malnutrition can be improved.

Source: University of Copenhagen