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50 million children still exposed to iodine deficiency disorders - UN health agency

50 million children still exposed to iodine deficiency disorders - UN health agency

Despite international progress aimed at iodizing salt, 50 million children were born last year without any protection against iodine deficiency disorders, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) reported today.

According to an article in the latest issue of WHO's monthly Bulletin, the disorders occur during foetal development because mothers lack adequate iodine. In the extreme, this results in cretinism, but subtle degrees of mental impairment - leading to poor school performance, reduced mental ability and restricted capacity to work - are far more common.

The article stresses the importance of supplementation in combating the problem. "These disorders can be prevented by ensuring adequate iodine intake, which is the primary objective of the current worldwide drive to eliminate iodine deficiency disorders," write WHO nutritionists Bruno de Benoist and Graeme Clugston.

That drive began in 1983, when a seminal paper by Basil Hetzel in the Lancet coined the term "iodine deficiency disorders." The realization that adequate iodine intake was essential for normal brain development - and lacking in so many children on such a global scale - galvanized international action.

"The results have been very impressive, and even though the goal of elimination of IDD as a public health problem by 2000 has not been achieved in all countries, hundreds of millions of people who were at risk a decade ago no longer are," Charles Todd, Health Adviser to the European Commission to Zimbabwe, writes in the current Bulletin.

In 1990 the World Summit for Children set the goal of eliminating iodine deficiency disorders by the year 2000. Since then, the number of countries with salt iodization programmes has risen from 46 to 93, iodized salt is now available in over two-thirds of the households in countries where the disorders are endemic, and 20 countries have achieved "universal salt iodization," defined as more than 90 per cent of households having access to iodized salt.

The informal global partnership now taking the initiative forward includes WHO, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Bank, bilateral funding agencies, the International Council for Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders, the salt industry, and various non-governmental and philanthropic organizations.