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Developing nations are losing billions of dollars a year through reduced production and other effects of iron deficiency, according to researchers.

A new study shows that iron deficiency in adults — which induces lethargy — costs developing countries on average 0.6 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP). When the damage to children's cognitive and motor development due to iron deficiency is added, the figure rises to 4 per cent of GDP.

"A loss of 4 per cent of GDP even in poor countries translates into billions of dollars lost," says Sue Horton of the University of Toronto, who co-authored the study, published in the journal Food Policy. The economic loss due to iron deficiency is particularly high in South Asia: about US$4.2 billion is lost annually in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

"One in three of the world's population suffers from anaemia [caused by iron deficiency], so this has tremendous economic consequences," says Horton. But addressing the problem by adding iron to basic food products is relatively inexpensive. For example, it costs only 12 US cents per person per year to fortify wheat flour in Venezuela. "With every dollar you invest, you receive US$36 back in physical and cognitive productivity. Those are huge returns," she says.

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