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New Focus on Reducing Anemia in Adolescent Girls

By Marion Roche, PhD

The target set out by the World Health Assembly is to reduce the anemia in all women of reproductive age by 50% by 2025. Women make up about 3.5 billion in population on our planet. In order to reach this World Health Assembly target, it will be essential to address anemia in the 600 million adolescent girls in the world and recently their nutrition has been getting more attention.

The global birth rate has declined over the past decade, except when analyzing the rate for adolescent girls, with 17-20 million adolescent pregnancies per year. Eleven percent of all pregnancies are to adolescents and 95% of these adolescent pregnancies are occurring in developing countries.

Complications from pregnancy and child birth are the second greatest contributor to mortality for girls 15-19 years of age. Young maternal age increases the risk for anemia during pregnancy, yet adolescent women are less likely to be covered by health services, including micronutrient supplementation, than older women. Compared with older mothers, pregnancy during adolescence is associated with a 50% increased risk of stillbirths and neonatal deaths, and greater risk of preterm birth, low birth weight and small for gestational age (SGA) (Bhutta et al, 2013; Kozuki et al, 2013; Gibbs et al, 2012).

Reducing anemia in adolescents is often motivated by efforts to improve maternal and newborn health outcomes for pregnant adolescents; however, benefits for improving adolescent school performance and productivity at work and in their personal lives should also be valued.

Globally, iron deficiency anaemia is the third most important cause of lost disability adjusted life years (DALYs) in adolescents worldwide at 3%, behind alcohol and unsafe sex (Sawyer et al, 2012).

Adolescents have among the highest energy needs in their diets, yet in developing countries many of them struggle to meet their micronutrient needs. The World Health Organization recommends intermittent or weekly Iron Folic Acid Supplements for non-pregnant women of reproductive age, including adolescent girls. IFA supplementation programs have often been designed to be delivered through the existing health systems, without specific strategies for reaching adolescent girls.

I have heard adolescence referred to as “the awkward years” when individuals explore self-expression and autonomy, but it is also definitely an awkward period for public health services in terms of delivering nutrition, as we often fail to reach this age group.

There have been examples of programs going beyond the health system to reach adolescent girls, such as through schools, peer outreach, factory settings where adolescents work in some countries and even sales in private pharmacies to target middle and upper income adolescent girls.
The Micronutrient Initiative implemented a pilot project with promising results in Chhattisgarh, India where teachers distributed the IFA supplements to 66,709 female students once per week during the school year over a 2 year pilot.

It was new for the schools to become involved in distribution of health commodities, but engaged teachers proved to be effective advocates. There were also efforts to reach the even more vulnerable out of school girls through the integrated child development centers, yet this proved to be a more challenging group of adolescents to reach. Peer to peer outreach by the school girls offered a potential strategy. The current project is being scaled up to reach over 3.5 million school girls.

Adolescent girls have much to offer to their friends, families and communities beyond being potential future mothers. It is time to get them the nutrients they need to thrive in school, work and life.

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