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A pinch of salt can go further In West Africa

While Iodized Salt Protects Brain Power of 7 Million West African Children, 30% Coverage Gap Leaves Poorest at Risk

DAKAR, 19 October 2004 – Some 30 per cent of West African children are still missing out on the enormous benefits of iodized household salt, UNICEF announced today at a meeting of West African leaders and health and industry officials.

Every pinch of iodized salt provides essential protection for children against the devastating effects of iodine deficiency afflictions – brain damage, mental retardation, and subsequent learning ability losses – that could be damaging the lives of up to 3 million West African children every year.

Today, 70 per cent of families across the West Africa, and 7 million newborns annually, are safe from iodine deficiency thanks to the use of iodized household salt.  National Universal Salt Iodization Programs in the region - supported by governments, salt manufacturers and international development organisations - aim to make sure that all families have access to iodized salt by 2005.

But a tragic gap still exists between this fortunate majority and the poorest 30 per cent.  These are the region’s most vulnerable women and children, most of them living in rural communities with the worst child health, nutrition and survival indicators.

“Closing this gap must be a first priority not a final step”, said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. “For children born into a world of unfair disparities, universal iodization of salt is one of the cheapest and most effective ways of improving their lives. With such effective tools and strategies at our disposal, we cannot be satisfied with anything less than 100 per cent coverage.”

Bellamy was speaking at the West African Consultation on Universal Salt Iodization, which brought together some 125 highest-level policy makers and program planners, international development partners, and private sector representatives from across West Africa and globally.  The focus of the consultation: finding strategies to close the remaining “iodized salt gap” in the region and achieve universal salt iodization by 2005.

Over the past 10 years, a good number of West African countries have achieved impressive progress in making iodized salt available to an increasingly larger number of households.

For example, in Nigeria, home to over one-third of the total population of West Africa, around 95 per cent of the population enjoys access to iodized salt. In Guinea, access to iodized salt has more than quadrupled in the last four years, from 14 per cent to 68 per cent in 2003.  And despite the erosion of health systems and community support networks due to civil conflict in Liberia, the country has been able to sustain access to iodized salt in over 80 per cent of its households.

 
“We have seen significant and impressive gains in some of the world’s poorest countries,” said Venkatesh Mannar, of the Micronutrient Initiative.  “The figures prove that the partnerships formed to bring iodized salt to all children are powerful and effective.”

But experts warned that a closer look at the regional data reveals patchy progress in key areas.

Not all countries are progressing fast. In Mali, 74 per cent of families and children have access to iodized salt in their homes, while in neighbouring Mauritania, that figure drops to 2 per cent.  And even within countries that are doing well, stubborn and troubling disparities can be found hiding within national averages.  Poor rural communities are falling far behind in the race to get iodized salt into every household. Children living in these communities are already carrying the highest burdens in terms of malnutrition, disease, and poor quality water and sanitation. For example in Bamako, the capital of Mali, 94 per cent of families have access to iodized salt whereas in the rural north this figure drops to 27 per cent.

Unwavering commitment from governments, salt manufacturers, multilateral organisations and community leaders is needed to close these gaps.

“As a priority, the region’s iodized salt production needs to be ramped up and quality controlled,” said Bellamy.  “And at the same time we need to reach out to the households still at risk to build understanding and demand for iodized salt.”

“The report confirms that universal salt iodization by 2005 is an entirely reachable goal in Sub-Saharan Africa” says Víctor Aguayo, UNICEF Regional Nutrition Adviser for West and Central Africa.  “With responsible leadership, sufficient policy and program prioritization and the right mix of partnerships at the regional, national, and sub-national level, it is within our grasp.”

For further information, please contact:

Kent Page, UNICEF Regional Office, Dakar, +221- 869 58 58, kpage@unicef.org
Claire Hajaj, UNICEF New York, +1 212 326 7566, chajaj@unicef.org
Dr. France Begin, MI  Johannesburg, +27-11 327 7820, fbegin@micronutrient.org.za

Notes to editors
Eliminating iodine deficiency through routine use of iodized salt is a key component of UNICEF’s mission to ensure that all children have the opportunity to survive and develop to their full potential through adolescence.

While the worst cases of iodine deficiency can cause severe mental retardation, such as cretinism, even mild iodine deficiency can result in a significant loss in learning ability.  Where it is prevalent, iodine deficiency can lower the intelligence quotient (IQ) of a population by as much as 13 points.  Other effects include goitre and, in women, a higher risk of stillbirth and miscarriage. 

UNICEF provides almost all the potassium iodate to manufacturers for iodizing salt. Currently, about 925,000 tons of salt are imported into West Africa each year. 


 

 

 

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