SEATTLE, Washington — Of all the things that could harm children, from environmental disasters to freak accidents to genetic syndromes, the brain damage caused by iodine deficiency in infants is the most preventable worldwide. As preventable as it may be, iodine deficiency is still the leading cause of brain damage worldwide. Governments and non-profit organizations are working to stamp out iodine deficiency and protect the brain health of people all over the world.
Functions of Iodine in the Brain
Iodine is an element that is needed for the thyroid to function properly, but since we do not produce it, we have to get it through our diet. If you do not have enough, you cannot make the thyroid hormone and can suffer from an enlargement of the thyroid or a goiter. In pregnant women, an iodine deficiency can lead to miscarriages, stillbirths, preterm deliveries and congenital abnormalities in the babies. In infants, intellectual disabilities and problems with growth, hearing and speech are common.
In a study conducted by UNICEF and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), it was found that nearly 19 million, 14 percent, of newborns per year are at risk of brain damage caused by iodine deficiency in the earliest years of their life. This risk is permanent but completely preventable and is the leading cause of preventable brain damage worldwide. It reduces cognitive function, lowering IQ by 8 to 10 points, and is a major loss in cognitive capital of a nation. It decreases the productivity of a nation and creates a barrier to socio-economic development.
It is no surprise that the early years of brain development in children are crucial. A nutritive diet is essential for proper brain health. “The nutrients a child receives in the earliest years of life influence their brain development for life, and can make or break their chance at a prosperous life,” stated UNICEF Senior Nutrition Advisor Roland Kupka. For some, these nutrients are not as readily available. In the case of Iodine, there are inexpensive preventative measures available.
Reducing the Risk of Iodine Deficiency
Governments, UNICEF, GAIN and several others are working to fix this issue by ensuring sustainable iodine intake for all children. A major, and cost-effective, solution to brain damage caused by iodine deficiency is salt iodization. It only costs $.02-.05 per child annually, and with every dollar spent, there is an estimated return of $30 through increased cognitive ability.
Currently, East Asia and the Pacific have the highest coverage of accessible iodized salt at 91 percent. South Asia, where there is the largest risk of iodine deficiency, is the second highest at 87 percent. The lowest are Eastern and Southern Africa where only 75 percent have access to iodized salt. This leaves 3.9 million babies every year who could suffer brain damage caused by a preventable iodine deficiency.
Global Efforts to Reduce Iodine Deficiency
In a global effort to combat this, countries have started to integrate iodized salt into national plans and agendas and strengthen regulatory systems to enforce existing legislation. They are acknowledging the importance of putting iodine in fortified foods. Surveillance systems have been established in remote places to identify unreached populations.
Europe and Central Asia have made iodization part of the salt manufacturing process. East Asia and the Pacific have strong policies and legislation in place to normalize iodized salt. Eastern and Southern Africa have regional commissions that strongly advocate for salt iodization as a part of a broader nutritional agenda. South Asia has drastically improved because of its focus on its iodine status and the goal to reach universal coverage. Although trade patterns have changed and affected the salt industry in Western and Central Africa, people are cooperating to keep the standards high and continue to spread iodization.
While iodine deficiency disorders are a major problem around the world, particularly in infants, people are now gaining access to salt and other food that are rich in iodine due to the devoted effort of governments and other important organizations. Hopefully, through their efforts, they will be able to reduce the risk of this preventable cause of brain damage.