Discovering the health in salt
Ruslan Baukaev and the other children of Turkmenistan would hardly imagine that the salt they consume contributes towards their good health. However, to the surprise of many iodised salt is the most effective way to protect children from iodine deficiency – the world’s leading cause of preventable mental retardation and brain damage.
We meet Ruslan Baukaev as he is enjoying his time at a summer camp by the Caspian Sea. Ruslan comes from the salt producing region of Balkan, and just like all other 12-year-old Turkmenistan children he has benefited from iodised salt throughout his childhood. He might not know that iodised salt has been beneficial for his health but he surely knows that a healthy lifestyle is important. “To eat the right things and to do exercise makes me stronger”, he says while taking a break from playing football and other games in the sand.
It is a an awesome and almost blinding sight that meets us as we arrive at the Guwlyduz salt plantation some 30 kilometres inland from Ruslan and his friend at the summer camp. A sea of white reinforcing the already bright sunlight stretches as far as the eye can see. It is all salt. In fact the salt is being extracted from a 50 kilometre “lake” which is covered by a three meter layer of salt. In other words, this is an almost inexhaustible source of salt and only a fraction of the salt is being processed. The salt facility produces about 50 tonnes of salt for food consumption every day, while another 200 tonnes are produced for other purposes. The train that takes us out onto the lake to fetch a new load of salt takes ten minutes to get to the source. The train then carries the salt back to the plant where it is being processed. Once inside the plant, the salt is processed to make it fit for human consumption and iodine is sprayed onto the high-quality salt. The plant’s laboratory, equipped with the assistance of UNICEF, meticulously analyses the salt and checks the mineral and iodine content.
Testing of salt also takes place in schools. When we meet Ogulnur Chowdurova (16) and her peers at school number one in Kone Urgench district in Dashoguz province, all pupils have brought household salt samples from their homes. Lab technicians from the province health authority have arrived with their lab equipment and chemicals to assist the pupils in the testing. Ogulnur is being instructed by the lab technician to divide her salt into two little heaps. She then pours a solution onto the first heap. Nothing happens - but this is just a tester. A second solution is then poured onto the other heap. The salt instantly turns dark purple which means that the salt has the desired iodine content. The solution makes its round to all the other pupils and the result on the day is encouraging: all the little heaps turn dark purple.
Turkmenistan’s campaign to iodise all salt began more than a decade ago, with a 1996 presidential decree enforcing the use of iodized salt countrywide. The same year Guwlyduz salt plantation started iodisation of salt in 1996 in cooperation with the government and UNICEF. UNICEF, in cooperation with USAID, has also supported government efforts by conducting surveys and providing technical assistance.
Turkmenistan achieved universal salt iodisation in 2004 as the first country in Central Asia and the fourth in the world. UNICEF’s Regional Director Maria Calivis that year presented the country with an award on behalf of UNICEF, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Council for Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders (ICCIDD) in recognition of this achievement.
In the early 1990’s children in Turkmenistan and other Central Asian countries faced growing risks of IDD and anaemia and their resulting negative consequences for children and women’s health such as fatigue, more disease, lower IQs and goitre. It is therefore no doubt that universal salt iodisation has had a very positive impact on the health of children in Turkmenistan.
“Through the joint efforts between UNICEF and the Government of Turkmenistan we managed to reverse a negative trend and we avoided a situation in which the mental health of children in Turkmenistan deteriorated. I think iodised salt represents a real success story and an example of how decisive and coordinated actions can have a substantial positive impact on the health of children,” said UNICEF Representative in Turkmenistan, Mahboob Shareef.