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UN: New Campaign Tackling Neglected Problem Of Iodine Deficiency

  • Robert McMahon

A coalition of public and private groups has announced a new initiative to eradicate a problem affecting many former Soviet states -- iodine deficiency. The groups, meeting at a UN conference on children, have pledged to help salt producers increase iodization rates and are aiming to eliminate iodine deficiency disorders by 2005.

United Nations, 9 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- One of the health successes touted at the UN special session on children this week is the sharp increase in households consuming iodized salt in the developing nations.

Since 1990, UN experts say, the campaign against iodine deficiency has helped protect 91 million newborn children from significant losses in learning ability every year.

But there remain 35 countries where less than half of the population uses iodized salt, including many states of the former Soviet Union, where once adequate salt iodization rates have plunged.

The United Nations Children's Fund -- UNICEF -- says about 4 million newborns in the region could face learning disabilities due to lack of iodine. It says countries with severe iodine deficits include Ukraine, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Belarus.

Now, a new initiative announced yesterday at UN headquarters aims to reintroduce salt iodization throughout the region and eliminate iodine deficiency worldwide by the year 2005.

The initiative is known as the Network for Sustained Elimination of Iodine Deficiency and involves a partnership of public, private, and UN agencies. Frits van den Haar is an expert on international health at Emory University in Atlanta and an adviser for the network.

He tells RFE/RL the network will seek to follow up the meeting last October in Almaty, in which Central Asian governments and the Asian Development Bank agreed on plans to boost the production, distribution and consumption of iodized salt to address nutritional needs. It will be up to national governments to adopt iodization programs, but a number of international bodies now stand ready to help.

Van den Haar says that if salt-producing companies in the region join the effort quickly, iodine levels could be sharply raised by year's end. "If you have the major salt producers [cooperating] -- and they are probably providing 80 to 90 percent of the salt of the population -- you can switch [the trend] almost overnight."

Iodine is a trace element found mostly in the soil, but many parts of the world do not contain enough of this nutrient. When a fetus does not receive enough iodine, brain development is stunted, affecting intellectual capacity and in some causes causing severe mental retardation.

To combat this deficiency, small amounts of iodine must be added to the diet. An effective -- and inexpensive -- way to do this is to iodize all salt consumed by humans and animals.

Another Emory University professor involved in the effort to eliminate iodine deficiency, Glen Maberly, explains the crucial time period when iodine is needed: "It's mainly what happens between the developing brain in uterus in the fetus and the early years of life. It's the wiring in the brain that gets affected. It requires thyroid hormone, which requires the iodine, and it has to get into the population."

Maberly says the absence of adequate iodine at this early stage of life can permanently limit a person's intellectual capacity. He says in areas with iodine deficiency, children can suffer a reduction of 10 to 15 percent in learning ability at school.

There have been anecdotal reports of the impact of this deficiency on children in the former Soviet Union, but authoritative figures are unavailable. A UNICEF expert in the field of micronutrients, Werner Schultink, told a news conference yesterday that the effects of iodine deficiency have been measured through laboratory techniques and in classroom tests.

"It's been proven beyond any doubt that as soon as an inadequate amount of iodine intake occurs, that children reduce learning capacity and that's best demonstrated in areas in schools [where] we know that it happened -- in China, in Indonesia, and a lot of other countries."

Communicating the dangers of iodine deficiency to the public is a key factor in any salt iodization campaign, public health experts say.

UNICEF's goodwill ambassador to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is former international chess champion Anatolii Karpov. Karpov has been charged with raising regional awareness of the iodine issue. He told yesterday's news conference that many in the region do not grasp the importance of salt iodization: "The [biggest] problem is just lack of public knowledge and education because people in general, they don't know that iodine deficiency brings problems with brain development for children."

Karpov traced the iodine deficiency problem to a decision by Soviet authorities in the late 1960s to stop iodizing salt, declaring that the goal of improving iodine intake had been reached.

Karpov said at the time the program ended, Russia was producing 500,000 tons of iodized salt. That figure dipped to 20,000 tons in the 1980s, he said, but has now climbed back to 100,000 tons. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, iodized salt distribution in the region plummeted, especially in Central Asia. Only Armenia and Turkmenistan have adequate levels of salt iodization, and Azerbaijan has just passed legislation requiring the iodization of salt.

One recent regional success story cited by UN officials is Bosnia-Herzegovina. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, the country was left with one private, poorly equipped salt factory in Tuzla. But partners such as the U.S. service organization Kiwanis International helped outfit the Tuzla factory with new equipment, and the country has now reached a level of 100 percent iodization of salt.

The company also exports iodized salt to Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia.