About 30 million children in developing countries can thank Toronto-based Dr. Stanley Zlotkin for coming up with an easy fix to their mineral and vitamin deficiencies, and last month, he was honoured by the province for his initiative.
“This all started close to 20 years ago when UNICEF asked me to come and assist them with a problem they had identified, which was a deficiency of iron in children around the world,” said Zlotkin, who has worked as a clinician-nutritionist and research scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children since 1980, and received the Order of Ontario in a ceremony on Jan. 20.
“At that time, the estimate was around 300 to 500 million children with iron deficiency. And although they had iron drops available for 100 years, they weren’t working for a number of practical reasons.”
Zlotkin explained that the iron drops had a very strong taste that caused children to spit them out, they would stain children’s teeth brown, and parents struggled with understanding the proper dosage, since the measurements were in metric units.
“So UNICEF’s question to me was, ‘Can you come up with an idea that would help solve this problem?’”
Zlotkin said that in Canada, there isn’t a big problem with iron deficiency in children because virtually all baby foods parents buy from grocery stores are made in a factory and they are fortified with iron and other vitamins and minerals.
“In a developing world context, where parents don’t buy baby food – they make it from whatever the local available food is, like rice or lentils or wheat or corn – these are not fortified because they make them in their house,” he said.
“So I came up with the idea for home fortification and this means you can take minerals and vitamins in a powdered form, put them in a little package – it looks like a package of artificial sweetener – parents have to open the package and sprinkle it onto whatever food they are using.”
Zlotkin said when he presented his idea to UNICEF, he was asked to conduct research to prove that this approach would treat children with anemia, that parents would use it, that companies would agree to make the product in large volume at a low cost, and he was asked to come up with models of distribution.
“Over the next 10 years, given the fact that I work at SickKids and I’m primarily a researcher… I did research around the world to answer those questions.”
The result was the Sprinkles Global Health Initiative.
With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and private foundations, Zlotkin conducted research in a number of developing countries to prove the benefits of home-fortification to control micronutrient deficiencies.
He said five or six years ago, UNICEF took on the responsibility of distributing the product, “so now the sprinkles, the powdered minerals and vitamins, are being distributed to children at risk of iron and other mineral and vitamin deficiencies in probably more than 50 countries, reaching 25 to 30 million children per year” in countries across Africa, Asia and Central and South America.
He said the product is also being used as part of the World Food Program, which is a UN agency, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, to be used in refugee camps and in emergency situations, and it is also being distributed by governments and non-governmental organizations.
Zlotkin said being recognized by the province that has been home to his family for generations is an honour.
“The Order of Ontario is the highest civilian award that can be given to someone,” said Zlotkin, who in 2007, was awarded the Order of Canada, the highest civilian honour in Canada, for his contributions to improving the lives of children globally.
“My grandparents came from eastern Europe in 1903… Both my parents were born in Ontario, two of my three children were born in Ontario, and I was born in Ontario, so to be recognized by a province that I’ve lived in… is about the highest honour a person can receive.”