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About a third of West African children have no access to iodized salt - UNICEF

About a third of West African children have no access to iodized salt - UNICEF

Carol Bellamy
Though programmes are in place to provide all families in West Africa with iodized table salt by next year, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) today said about 3 million children in the region still have no access to the treated condiment which could protect them against some forms of brain damage.

"As a priority, the region's iodized salt production needs to be ramped up and quality-controlled," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said in an address to the West African Consultation on Universal Salt Iodization, being held in Dakar, Sengal. "And at the same time we need to reach out to the households still at risk to build understanding and demand for iodized salt."

Iodized salt protects children against the devastating effects of deficiency, including brain damage, mental retardation and reduced learning ability, that could ruin the lives of up to 30 per cent of West African children annually, UNICEF said. Iodine deficiency in adults can also lead to goitres and miscarriages.

According to UNICEF, iodine deficiency can lower the intelligence quotient of a population by as many as 13 points.

West Africa imports about 925,000 tons of iodized salt each year, it said. UNICEF provides potassium iodate to some local manufacturers for inclusion in the similar amount made in the region, a New York spokesperson for the Fund said.

Nonetheless, in Mauritania only 2 per cent of families use iodized salt, compared to 95 per cent in Nigeria, 80 per cent in post-conflict Liberia, 74 per cent in Mali and 68 per cent in Guinea. The ratio is not the same across a single country, either, with 94 per cent of families having access to iodized salt in Mali's capital, Bamako - a figure that drops to 27 per cent in the rural north.

"Closing this gap must be a first priority not a final step," Ms. Bellamy cautioned. "For children born into a world of unfair disparities, universal iodization of salt is one of the cheapest and most effective ways of improving their lives. With such effective tools and strategies at our disposal, we cannot be satisfied with anything less than 100 per cent coverage."