The number of countries where iodine deficiency, a significant cause of mental development problems in children, is prevalent has halved over the past decade due mainly to a strategy of universal salt iodization, but 54 nations are still deficient, according to a new United Nations health agency report released today.
The UN General Assembly at the Special Session for Children in 2002 set next year as the target goal for eliminating iodine deficiency, and the World Health Organization (WHO) report - Iodine status worldwide - says sustained efforts by the 54 iodine-deficient countries are required to strengthen salt iodization programs.
"Iodine deficiency is a major threat to the health and development of people worldwide, particularly preschool children and pregnant women," WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook said of the problem, which leads to poor school performance, reduced intellectual ability and impaired work capacity. "This report shows that the goal of eliminating iodine deficiency around the world is within reach."
Bruno de Benoist of WHO's Department of Nutrition for Health and Development noted that salt iodization is a very easy, cheap and affordable strategy mainly requiring the will of the countries concerned. "Governments should have a better partnership with the salt industry," he told the UN News Service. "We could see very significant progress within a year."
Deficiency results when soil is poor in iodine, causing insufficient iodine intake in food, leading to low levels of thyroid hormones in the blood with consequent functional and developmental abnormalities, collectively referred to as iodine deficiency disorders. Cretinism is the most extreme manifestation. Universal salt iodization has been implemented in most countries where deficiency is a public health problem under the leadership of WHO and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). Globally, UNICEF estimates that 66 per cent of households now have access to iodized salt.
In 1993, iodine deficiency was a public health problem in 110 countries, showing the effectiveness of the universal salt iodization strategy, WHO said. Of the 54 deficient countries, 40 are mildly so and 14 moderately or even severely iodine deficient. In 29 countries, iodine intake was slightly too high or excessive which could result in iodine-induced thyroid dysfunction, highlighting the important need to reinforce monitoring of iodized salt quality to ensure optimal iodine nutrition.
WHO said it faces a dual challenge: to continue maintaining the Global Databank on Iodine Deficiency to track progress made by countries; and to work closely with governments and partners to help Member States ensure that populations at risk have access to iodized salt.