Assessing the iron status of populations

Second edition, including Literature Reviews

World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Publication details

Number of pages: 108
Publication date: 2007
Languages: English
ISBN: 978 92 4 1596107 (electronic version)


  • Full report
    pdf, 1.2Mb
  • Background 1
    pdf, 287kb

    Indicators of iron status of populations: red blood cell parameters
  • Background 2
    pdf, 827kb

    Indicators of iron status of populations: ferritin
  • Background 3
    pdf, 342kb

    Indicators of iron status: free erythrocyte protoporphyrin and zinc protoporphyrin; serum and plasma iron, total iron binding capacity and transferrin saturation; and serum transferrin receptor
  • Background 4
    pdf, 338kb

    The interpretation of indicators of iron status during an acute phase response


Anaemia is one of the most common and intractable nutritional problems in the world today. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that some two billion people are anaemic defined as haemoglobin concentrations that are below recommended thresholds. The main causes of anaemia are: dietary iron deficiency; infectious diseases such as malaria, hookworm infections and schistosomiasis; deficiencies of other key micronutrients including folate, vitamin B12 and vitamin A; or inherited conditions that affect red blood cells (RBCs), such as thalassaemia.

In the absence of international agreement on how to assess the iron status of populations, the prevalence of iron deficiency has often been derived from the prevalence of anaemia using measurements of blood haemoglobin concentration. However not all anaemic people are iron deficient and iron deficiency may occur without anaemia. This means that the prevalence of anaemia and iron deficiency varies in different populations and no consistent relationship between the two can be applied throughout the world.

When anaemia is considered from the point of view of programmes to improve nutrition and health, an estimate of the prevalence derived from the haemoglobin concentration alone does not allow the contribution of iron deficiency to anaemia to be estimated, and ignores the role of other causes of anaemia. To plan effective interventions to combat both iron deficiency and anaemia there is an urgent need to have better information on the iron status of populations.

This will enable the right interventions to be chosen in the first place and then, once programmes are in place, to have the right indicators to monitor their impact. These were all reasons for holding the Joint WHO/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Technical Consultation on the Assessment of Iron Status at the Population Level. The Consultation took place in Geneva, Switzerland, from 6 to 8 April 2004.