Researchers warn lack of iodine leaves 14% of newborns vulnerable to impaired mental development.
A lack of iodine in pregnancy and early childhood puts nearly 19 million babies around the world at risk of permanent but preventable brain damage every year, a new report has warned.
Insufficient iodine during pregnancy can adversely affect neurological and psychological development, reducing a child’s IQ by eight to 10 points.
More broadly, widespread iodine deficiency can diminish the cognitive capital of entire nations, diminishing socio-economic progress, experts claim.
A global movement to add small amounts of iodine to edible salt has been successfully addressing the problem of iodine deficiency since the mid 1990s, protecting the developing brains of children worldwide.
However, research published on Thursday revealed more work is needed to tackle the issue, with 14% of babies born globally still at risk of preventable brain damage.
Over the past decade, the UN children’s agency, Unicef, has been working in tandem with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (Gain) to tackle iodine deficiency.
Their joint report – Brighter futures: Protecting early brain development through salt iodisation – charts the impact of iodised salt in 13 countries.
“Iodised salt is a remarkable success story, but a further push is needed to complete the journey in tackling this scourge, which has affected mankind over decades and centuries,” said Roland Kupka, a senior adviser on nutrition with Unicef.
“The nutrients a child receives in the earliest years influence their brain development for life, and can make or break their chance of a prosperous future.”
The most critical period for a child’s development – and therefore for iodine intake – is the 1,000 days between conception and the age of two. Nutrition, along with protection, stimulating activities and early learning, shapes brain development for life during this spell.
Most countries are at inherent risk of iodine deficiency because the mineral is unevenly distributed in soil and the environment. In many regions, soils are becoming increasingly depleted of iodine.
The geographical characteristics of a country determine how much iodine makes it into the food chain, but in most settings the addition of iodine to salt is required to protect against deficiency.
Nutritionists advise that salt intake should be limited to no more than five grams a day, and that all salt consumed should be iodised.
Iodised salt is now available to 86% of the world’s households, and is increasingly used in the food industry. However, challenges remain for many countries, particularly those with large numbers of small-scale salt producers.
“Countries where iodine deficiency is highly prevalent include Burundi, Mali, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Sudan, Sudan. These are all regions where a lot more work is needed,” said Kupa.
In eastern and southern Africa, iodised salt coverage is limited to 75%, leaving roughly 3.9 million newborns unprotected, the report found.
Coverage is better in south Asia, but the high number of births in the region means 4.3 million children remain at risk of reduced cognitive function.
Kupa said: “Our research indicates that 20 countries worldwide have iodine deficiency at a national level. They include a substantial number of European countries.
“Salt iodisation in many western European countries is not well implemented. Even in the UK, iodine deficiency among pregnant women has surfaced as a big problem.”
Milk is the main source of the mineral among the British population but, with milk consumption in decline, some groups are at increased risk of iodine deficiency.
While iodine can be found in grains, eggs and seafood, levels are variable and, in Britain, are insufficient to meet the needs of the population.
Greg Garrett, director of food policy at Gain, said: “Due to the collective efforts of governments, industry, civil society and others we are on the verge of being able to ensure sustainable iodine intakes for all children.
“But there is still much more to be done to end iodine deficiency and we hope others join our efforts to further scale up salt iodisation in the hardest to reach areas.”
The report recommends integrating salt iodisation into national plans to support child nutrition, aligning salt iodisation and salt reduction initiatives, and establishing surveillance systems to reach vulnerable populations.
The study also calls for stronger regulatory systems to enforce existing legislation on salt iodisation.