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Our goal is to present recent progress in understanding the biological mechanisms underlying anemia from a public health perspective. We describe important advances in understanding common causes of anemia and their interactions, including iron deficiency (ID), lack of other micronutrients, infection, inflammation, and genetic conditions. ID develops if the iron circulating in the blood cannot provide the amounts required for red blood cell production and tissue needs. ID anemia develops as iron-limited red blood cell production fails to maintain the hemoglobin concentration above the threshold used to define anemia. Globally, absolute ID (absent or reduced body iron stores that do not meet the need for iron of an individual but may respond to iron supplementation) contributes to only a limited proportion of anemia. Functional ID (adequate or increased iron stores that cannot meet the need for iron because of the effects of infection or inflammation and does not respond to iron supplementation) is frequently responsible for anemia in low- and middle-income countries. Absolute and functional ID may coexist. We highlight continued improvement in understanding the roles of infections and inflammation in causing a large proportion of anemia. Deficiencies of nutrients other than iron are less common but important in some settings. The importance of genetic conditions as causes of anemia depends upon the specific inherited red blood cell abnormalities and their prevalence in the settings examined. From a public health perspective, each setting has a distinctive composition of components underlying the common causes of anemia. We emphasize the coincidence between regions with a high prevalence of anemia attributed to ID (both absolute and functional), those with endemic infections, and those with widespread genetic conditions affecting red blood cells, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and regions in Asia and Oceania.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of Nutrition

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