Published: 24/02/2005, Volume II5, No. 5944 Page 10

'Why on earth would an MP want to discuss anaemia?' asked my wife, though not unkindly, when I mentioned the subject. 'Why not?' was my reply. MPs discuss all sorts of things and someone, somewhere, always reads what they say and what the duty minister offers in reply.

Besides, it is not as if anaemia is an affliction that affects other people. Mrs White suffered it after bearing her children and was offered Guinness on the NHS.

A generation on, my daughter-in-law, whose mother was once a midwife, was given NHS iron pills, but had to buy her own Guinness.

Her mum started making her spinach and pig's liver soup with soft noodles to counter the iron deficiency.

And then There is our family friend Dan, a strapping 30-year-old who does not eat properly. . . but That is enough. You get the picture. So does Bob Laxton, Labour MP for Derby North since 1997.

A former council leader and BT engineer by trade, he has long been interested in the topic. This month he raised it in a Commons adjournment debate with junior health minister Dr Stephen Ladyman.

Listening to the MP you quickly get a different perspective on the problem. A study in the Pear Tree district of Derby showed that 54 per cent of Asian Muslim children suffered from anaemia, compared with 32 per cent among Sikhs and 30 per cent among white Britons.

Similar studies in Birmingham and Bradford confirmed the link with deprivation.

I cannot resist interpolating a note of my own - not Bob Laxton's - at this point. It is that poor people who choose or are encouraged to deprive themselves of the educational and other opportunities open to them or their daughters (for cultural or religious reasons) contribute to their own poverty.

Be that as it may, the MP confirmed what the undeprived White family knows - that anaemia is no respecter of social class or education. It hits young children and teenagers hardest, sometimes adults, causing everything from sores to debilitating lassitude.

Diet is a major factor, of course, which makes anaemia such a menace in the developing world.

Well, government policy can do something about that. The Sure Start programmes are designed to help poor children catch up. John Reid's public health white paper is very big on diet, though I could find no reference in it to anaemia alongside the colourful stuff about smoking, sex, booze and inequality.

Ruth Kelly, the new education secretary, is restoring dietary standards in schools, junked long ago by the minister we knew as the Milk Snatcher. What became of her, I wonder?

Where Bob Laxton, a 60-year-old Labour mainstreamer, disagrees with the minister is in his call for regular screening of children along with that iron-rich diet of eggs, red meat and, yes, chocolate.

That may be, in part, because HemoCue, a hi-tech local firm, has developed a test which can provide a haemoglobin reading from a single drop of blood. All primary care trusts should test children, the MP suggested to Dr Ladyman.

It is an interesting point, but you can guess the minister's response.

Yes on the problem and on dietary remedies - 'primary prevention' - but no to what the UK National Screening Committee regards as a poor use of resources: wholepopulation screening.

In addition to promoting healthy diet during pregnancy, a scheme started in 1940 but now targeted at the poor, there are a wodge of supplements for the most vulnerable who include all South Asian ethnic groups and Afro-Carribeans.

Teenage girls who have some pretty alarming rates of anaemia (50 per cent in some surveys) are also on the Whitehall radar. The efficiency of screening is always an issue and usually a bit political. Thus breast and cervical screening, well ahead of prostate, reflects the growing political clout of women.

Chlamydia screening was also made more accessible this month to counter nasty trends in sexual illhealth. Excellent if it works, though prevention matters there too.

Research in the Midlands to see if new guidelines to GPs on anaemia would help showed it did not. We should be pragmatic - even in election year.

Michael White is political editor of The Guardian.