Scientists, including one of Indian origin, have developed a low-cost blood test that can detect iron and vitamin A deficiency in just 15 minutes.
The small, portable diagnostic system about the size of a lunchbox contains a blood sample test strip, like those used by diabetics.
"Vitamin A and iron deficiency affect more than one-third of the world's population. Problems resulting from these deficiencies - such as blindness, anaemia and death, particularly among children and women - are a major public health challenge," said Saurabh Mehta, associate professor at Cornell University in the US.
"Doctors and health professionals have sought to reduce the burden of micronutrient deficiencies and their consequences, but it is difficult since we must detect them early on to have the largest impact," said Mehta, a senior author of the research published in the journal PNAS.
"Most developing countries do not have access to the needed, sophisticated tools to enable early diagnosis. This test has the potential to solve that," he said.
At any given time, about 250 million preschool-age children globally are deficient in vitamin A, according to the World Health Organization.
In those regions where childhood deficiencies are prevalent, pregnant women are likely vitamin A deficient and anaemic, as well, researchers said.
Annually, up to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children around the world become blind and about half of those children die within a year, as they become vulnerable to other diseases, they said.
The researchers found a way to include on the test strip three types of antibodies, which bind to specific biomarkers in the individual's serum.
"The sampling process is similar to picking up iron among other metals," said Zhengda Lu, a doctoral candidate at Cornell.
The strip measures concentrations of retinol binding protein (important for eyesight), C-reactive protein (an infection indicator) and the protein ferritin (to find anaemia).
"We must address the micronutrient problem at the individual level- which is a much easier task. The key to solving these micronutrient deficiency problems is early detection and early intervention," said David Erickson, Professor at Cornell.
"Having information, we can change or supplement diets, if we know who is deficient - and we are more likely to prevent complications, and keep children and women healthy," Erickson said.
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