Iodine Smart: Wise investment in children for reaching their full potential
As we arrived at the school in Dunice, a village one and a half hour’s drive from Pogradec in eastern Albania, we were met by Fatos, the school director. Fatos led us inside the school building, which was in near ruins. There were few windows left, half of the walls were knocked down, and there was mud inside and out – all the children wore boots inside the school. There are a total of 96 children studying at the school. As we entered one of the classrooms, students were crouched over their desks in the cold. This was the room where the children in class 8 were studying, and we were immediately struck with how much younger these fourteen year olds seemed as they were very thin, short and not well developed. In addition, we could visibly see that 10 children had goiters. This is not an unusual phenomenon in this area where 15 of the 40 families that still live in the village have members suffering from goiter (swelling of the thyroid gland), many of them children. In fact, 55.6 per cent of children in Albania suffer from iodine deficiency (UNICEF 2006).
We asked Fatos about their academic progress and he remarked that “the average mark does not go above 7,” indicating that the level of the class aptitude is well below average. Studies have shown that iodine deficiency can lead to a loss of up to 15 per cent of intellectual capacity but can be prevented by just a teaspoonful of iodine consumed over an entire lifetime.
Iodization of all salt for human consumption is the most cost-effective, safe and reliable method of fighting iodine deficiency. If all salt is iodized with sufficient amount of iodine and all families use only iodized salt, iodine deficiency is no more a threat to health and development of children. Unfortunately, not all families in Dunice are aware of iodine deficiency and how easily it can be treated and prevented. Even if families knew about using iodized salt, poverty often stands in the way of their access to it. “People buy this other type of salt (non-iodized) because it is cheaper,” says Kujtim, a shopkeeper in Dunice. “Half a kilogram of iodized salt costs 20 Lek, while a half a kilogram of non-iodized salt costs 15 Lek.”
In other, more isolated villages, obtaining fresh supplies is very difficult because of poor road infrastructure. Meanwhile, little attention is paid to storage conditions of iodized salt, so even when iodized salt if found in the market is not sure how much iodine contains.
The Albanian government supported by UNICEF has focused interventions in advocacy, awareness raising and strengthening the quality control system for iodized salt. However, the iodine deficiency remains an area of concern requiring more coordinated and vigorous interventions to address the issue.