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On February 23rd, Nutrition International President and CEO Joel Spicer spoke at the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development for the Government of Canada where he shared a call to action on anaemia’s devastating effects, especially when paired with early pregnancy. Over one billion women, adolescent girls and children around the world are anaemic.

Watch the video or read his full remarks below.

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Hello. Bonjour.

J’aimerais remercier les membres du comité de m’avoir invité à prendre la parole ici aujourd’hui pour discuter des vulnérabilités créées et exacerbées par la pandémie de la COVID-19.

My thanks to this committee for inviting me to speak to the devasting impacts of COVID-19 on women and girls’ nutrition, and why investing in anaemia is critical for saving the lives and futures of women, adolescent girls, and children.

My name is Joel Spicer, I’m the President and CEO of Nutrition International, a global nutrition organization headquartered in Canada. At Nutrition International we work alongside governments as an expert ally to help them bring proven, low-cost, high-impact nutrition and health interventions to scale.

We are an institution that strengthens other institutions, acting as a force-multiplier for the development ecosystem, by standing at the crossroads of health, food, and social protection systems.

Normally you expect to find global organizations in London, New York, or Geneva. We’re proud to have our roots in Canada — but our branches are global, reaching more than five hundred million people every year in more than 60 countries.

Our partnership with Canada has saved more than five million children’s lives and prevented millions of cases of stunting, permanent mental impairment and anaemia over nearly three decades.

Over the last year, we have witnessed the devastating impacts of COVID-19 across the countries in Africa and Asia where we work. To understand how the pandemic has amplified and intensified vulnerabilities due to malnutrition, it is important to highlight the role that nutrition plays in overall health and immunity. Simply put, good nutrition is the foundation for human development. It is the critical ingredient every one of us needs to survive and to thrive.

Without it, the brain cannot develop fully, the body cannot grow properly, and the immune system cannot function effectively, leaving people at risk of disease and disability. Nutrition makes the difference between attending school and succeeding at school. And it is time-sensitive. Good nutrition is about accessing the right nutrients at the right time, to prevent irreversible harm.

Against this backdrop, consider the impacts of COVID-19. As you have heard, the health and economic crises sparked by COVID-19 have disrupted supply chains, reduced purchasing power and cut access to essential care. In addition, fear and misinformation have kept those who need care from seeking it.

This means that millions of women, adolescent girls, children, and newborns have not been able to access the life-saving vitamins and minerals they need. By 2022, even low-case estimates project 2.1 million additional cases of maternal anaemia, 168,000 additional child deaths and $29.7 billion US dollars in additional productivity losses due to COVID-19-related increases in malnutrition. The threat of a malnutrition crisis more devastating than COVID-19 itself is very real.

As is often the case, these impacts fall most heavily on women and children. Malnutrition, in the form of anaemia, is one of the most devastating manifestations of COVID-19 disruptions. Over one billion women and girls were anaemic prior to the pandemic, and rates are now rising due to COVID-19. Anaemia increases a woman’s chance of dying during pregnancy and delivery; it stunts infant growth and cognitive development for life; and it weakens children’s immune systems, making them more susceptible to infection and disease. And if that weren’t enough, it threatens their ability to learn properly and remain in school.

The growing, unchallenged, and preventable burden of anaemia is discrimination and disempowerment at a cellular, social, and economic level — keeping women, adolescents, and children trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and inequality.

To give an example of this, I’d like to highlight how anaemia is threatening women and girls’ survival and health in Tanzania. In a country where teenage pregnancy rates have been on the rise in recent years — more so since COVID-19 — one out of every four adolescent girls between 15- and 19-years-old gets pregnant — some more than once. Over 50% of all teenage girls, including these young mothers, are anaemic. These combined factors — early pregnancy and anaemia, are putting them and their babies at incredible risk. The maternal mortality rate — driven by increases in adolescent maternal deaths — is 70 times that of Canada and rising. Anaemia is the culprit in more than 20% of these deaths even though it can be prevented at a low cost. The lives and potential of a generation of Tanzanian women are being undermined by anaemia — and it is threatening the survival of the next generation too.

The good news is, we know what to do to combat anaemia — and how to do it at scale. It is one of the most cost-effective development investments out there, and it gets results. The fight against anaemia is a cross-cutting orphan issue that — until now — has lacked a global champion with the track record and credibility to rally the world. Canada is well-positioned to be that champion.

As you study the vulnerabilities created and amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that the global needs are massive and global resources are finite. Canada cannot lead everywhere — but we can make a real difference if we increase our investments in a set of strategic, high-impact areas that build from existing leadership, capability, and expertise. Nutrition is one of those areas because it is essential for a strong immune system, essential for the achievement of education outcomes, and essential for human beings to be resilient and at their full potential.

2021 is a critical year of action for nutrition culminating in the Nutrition for Growth Summit in Japan in December. Canada is uniquely positioned as a leading nutrition donor to rally our allies and partners and to direct that collective action toward solving a major global problem impacting women, adolescents, and children.

Serving as a catalyst for a global initiative to address anaemia will generate one of the strongest and most lasting returns on investment that Canada could achieve as part of its COVID-19 recovery efforts. It will complement Canada’s broader investments to make immunity in the form of a vaccine available across the globe while ensuring that the most vulnerable of this generation — and the next — have the opportunity to survive and thrive. And it will be something that all Canadians can be proud of.

J’aimerais vous remercier de votre temps et votre attention cet après-midi. Je serais heureux de répondre à vos questions.

Thank you.