Eliminating iodine deficiency disorders by 2020

Today, we are on the verge of eliminating iodine deficiency – a public health triumph that ranks with getting rid of polio and smallpox.  Over the past two decades, the number of iodine deficient countries has dropped from 113 in 1993 to just 19 in 2017.  Now, it’s time not only to celebrate success, but to look at how we walk the last few miles together towards eliminating iodine deficiency disorders.

Iodine deficiency is the world’s most prevalent, yet easily preventable, cause of brain damage. Iodine deficiency disorders are a serious threat to children’s mental health and often their very survival. Severe iodine deficiency may reduce a child’s IQ by 10-15 points, resulting in poorer school performance and worse economic prospects later in life. Iodine deficiency can impair the social and economic well-being of entire communities.

Universal salt iodization – the simple practice of adding iodine to salt – is a safe and scalable nutrition intervention, and the most cost effective way to tackle iodine deficiency disorders.

GAIN, together with the World Health Organization (WHO), the Iodine Global Network (IGN), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and Effective Altruism Geneva organized the event ‘Towards the Elimination of Iodine Deficiency by 2020’ on Tuesday, 23 May 2017, on the sidelines of the World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.

“We can control iodine deficiency disorders globally in the next five to ten years”, said GAIN’s Director of Food Fortification, Greg S. Garrett.  “It will probably take another USD 30 million to get the job done and provide sustainable access to iodine through iodized salt in these 19 countries that remain iodine deficiency today. GAIN and all the partners involved want to mobilize these resources and work together with government and industries to achieve this goal”, he added.

From left to right: Dr Francesco Branca, Jonas Vollmer, Jessica, Prof Michael Zimmerman, Jessica Farebrother

Latest research and 2017 iodine nutrition status 

“Iodine deficiency damages the developing brain and this is the main reason that we’re fighting so hard to control iodine deficiency around the world, said Prof. Michael Zimmerman, Chair of IGN.   “89 studies worldwide have shown that salt iodization leads to an 82% in goiter, 87% in cretinism, 73% decrease in low IQ”.

“We have now only 19 countries with national or subnational data that remain iodine deficient around the world.  So we actually see the light at the end of the tunnel and what we need now is to push hard and see if we can reach the remaining countries and see if we can eliminate iodine deficiency on the global level”, he added.

Jessica Farebrother, MPharm MPH, doctoral candidate at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, focused her presentation on the SIMPLIFYT study, the latest research on iodine nutrition and 1,000 days window between conception and age two.  “The SIMPLIFY study was an important study.  It has nicely concluded that when salt iodization policies are implemented effectively, that actually they really cover everyone, right through from conception through to old age, and the most important, 1,000 day vulnerable window is adequately covered as well.“  (Download Jessica’s presentation here).

Walking the last mile to eliminate iodine deficiency

“We need to walk this last mile together, said  Dr Francesco Branca, Director of WHO’s the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, who reiterated that salt iodization is the preferred strategy to end iodine deficiency disorders.  “The recommendation is now that all food grade salt used in household and food processing should be fortified with iodine as a safe and effective strategy for the prevention and control of iodine deficiency disorders in populations living in stable and emergency settings.”(Download Dr. Branca’s presentation here).

Jonas Vollmer, Director of Communications at the Effective Altruism Foundation, talked about why people should donate to programmes like IDD elimination.  He outlined the philosophy behind the Effective Altruism movement and how effective organizations are assessed. “Salt iodization meets all the criteria of interventions supported by effective altruists: effectiveness, cost-effectiveness, room for more funding, and transparency”, said Jonas. (Download his presentation here).

In a question and answer session after the presentations, participants talked about preparing for new challenges, especially as the world moves towards a situation where families eat more processed food and less food is prepared in the home.  Ensuring that salt routinely used in food systems will help address this changing scenario.

Watch the full event here

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Published 26 May 2017